Muslim Identity Crises: From Golden Ages to Militancy

“Read! (Iqra)” said Archangel Gabriel.

“I am unable to read.” replied Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

Gabriel caught hold of Prophet (pbuh) and embraced him heavily and then said again, “Read!”

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) replied again, “I am unable to read.”

Gabriel embraced the Prophet (pbuh) again and said to recite the following verses:

“Read! in the name of your Lord who created – created man from a clot. Read: for your Lord is Most Bountiful, who teaches by the pen, teaches man that which he knew not.” — Quran, Sura 96 (Al-Alaq), verse 1-5

In the history of the religions of the world, the Holy Quran holds a distinctive attribute for being the only holy book whose first word of its first revelation decreed the pursuit of knowledge. So why is it that the religion whose very foundation was based on reading, writing and education is now being increasingly associated with militancy and terrorism? Muslims civilisation which once was envy of the world is now suffering from identity crises. A dig in the historical circumstances helps unearthing the evolution of Muslim identity from an advanced civilisation to an embattled faith.

The expansion of Arab Muslim Empire after Prophet (PBUH)

The Arab conquests in the first century after the death of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) resulted in formation of one of the most significant empires in the history of the world. After initial years of political infightings, rifts and battles among the Arab tribes, Muslim world experienced exponential growth geographically, militarily and economically during the 89 years (661-749) rule of Ummayads. The year 750AD holds a key importance in the Islamic history. It was a year of victory of Abbasid revolution against the Ummayad Caliphs and thus the beginning of Abbasid Caliphate. It was a start of the Golden Age of Islam.

Golden Ages of Islam (750-1258)

The Abbasid revolution was marred with brutality and massacre. Despite the brutality of Abbasid’s takeover, first Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur and his descendants free to define political, social, civic, cultural and religious affairs, created a 500-year intellectual flowering that is among the greatest in the history of human civilisation. The glories of their achievements are such that no other contemporary can begin to shine as will the reign of the Abbasids and their future world city of intellect and learning, Baghdad. The irony of the history is that despite being defeated by Abbasids, Ummayads revived a rival caliphate (756-1031) and civilisation in a city called Qurtuba, in a faraway place called Al-Andulus (present day Spain, Portugal, Andorra and part of southern France). Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171) also made its presence felt by creating the outlines of medieval Cairo, a major world city and global centre of learning.

While Europe languished in the Dark Ages of ignorance, fear and superstition following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, it was the Islamic world that carried the torch of classical civilization to a Europe finally stumbling out of the Dark Ages in the 15th century. It was an age during which political rivalry among Muslim Caliphates went to backdrop and quest for brilliance in learning and education took the stage. Reason, logic and rationalism were the mainstay of this golden epoch of Islam in which Muslims dazzled the world with their brilliance in science, literature, philosophy and arts. During the Arabs’ conquests the treasure chest of Greek sciences, philosophy and literature fell in the hands of Muslims. No, they did not burn or destroy these treasures. Instead, The Translation Movement was started in the House of Wisdom (Bayt Ul-Hikma) which was founded by Caliph Haroon-al-Rashid (reined 786-809) and culminated under his son Al-Mamun (reigned 813-833). Via Persia and Byzantium as well as Syria and Iraq, the outlines of the ideas of Arsitotle and Plato and Socrates, of Euclid and Pythagoras, slowly made their way into Arabic from Latin, Greek, Syriac and Persian. The House of Wisdom through 9th to 13th century became a powerhouse of intellectual exploration and discussion.

Significant breakthroughs and advancements in the fields of mathematics, physics, biology, medicine, chemistry, astronomy, arts and literature were made by Muslim scientists and scholars. Madrasahs and Universities were established to promote learning. In fact the Guinness World Records recognizes the University of Al Karaouine, founded in 859, (located at present day Morroco) as the world’s oldest degree-granting university. This Golden Age of Islam gave to science the greats of Al-Khwarizmi (790-850), Al-Jawhari (800-860), Al-Kindi (805-873), Al-Farabi (870-950), Al-Uqlidisi (920-980), Al-Karaji (953-1029), Ibn Al-Haitam (965-1039), Mansur (970-1036), Ibn Sina (980-1037), Al-Biruni (973-1048), Omar Khayyam (1048-1122). The list of discoveries and inventions of Muslims scientists during this period is very long and undoubtedly if Nobel Prize has existed then, Muslims would have scored very highly in many fields.

Watch BBC documentary ‘Science and Islam’ for details of discoveries and works of Muslim scientist, scholars and artists:

 An important aspect of this era which should not be overlooked is Mutazilites vs Asharites debates. Science flourished because there was within Muslims a strong rationalist tradition, carried on by a group of Muslim thinkers known as the Mutazilites (8th to 10th century). Under the Mutazilities ‘enlightened moderation tradition’, which stressed on free will against predestination, rose and reached its pinnacle during the Abbasid period. Their movement began to die out with opponents such as Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal. However, greater rivals emerged in their own ranks: Asharites – the foremost theological school in Sunni Islam. It had its origin in the reaction against the excessive rationalism of the Mutazilites. Its members insisted that reason must be subordinate to revelation.

Islamic clergy and roots of militancy

The invasions by Crusaders in 11th and 12th centuries and Mongols in early 13th century resulting in destruction of libraries did play an important part in decline of Golden Age of Islam. However, it has also been suggested that political mismanagement and the restraining of Ijtihad (independent reasoning) in the 12th century in favour of institutionalised Taqleed (imitation), supremacy of dogma over rationalism, thinking played the most significant role in the decline. Clergy from the very beginning of the Islam, as was the case in case of Christianity, has always disapproved of any attempt at ‘enlightened moderation’. Clergy turned our heroes of Golden Ages to heretics. Destructive wars, sectarianism, infightings and murder of rationalism were the main causes of decline of Islam.

A major consensus among the historians is that one of the major causes, if not the single most important one, for the decline of science and rationalism in Islam is works of renowned jurist, mystic, philosopher and theologian, Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), arguably the most famous Muslim intellectual in the history of Islam. His attacks on philosophers, particularly Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina who were the two most reliable exponents of Aristotle’s philosophy, culminated in his famous book ‘Tahafut al-Falasifah (The Incoherence of Philosophers)’. Critics argue that he challenged philosophers on the grounds that the philosophers could not lay down rational explanations for metaphysical arguments and this challenge, in a way, stopped critical thinking in the Islamic world. Imam Ghazali asserted revelation over reason and predestination over free will. His work was challenged by a great Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) in his book ‘Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence)’ in which he repeatedly referred to Imam Ghazali’s works as Asharite. In his book he attempted to create harmony between faith and philosophy, between Aristotelian idea and Islam. It is ironical that with the kind of Muslim thinkers we had in past, many of today’s Muslim orthodox model themselves on perhaps Imam Ghazali and none of the any of the great Muslim rationalists and philosophers like Al-Raazi, Khayyam, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd.

Works of another Islamic scholar and theologian continue to harness Muslim minds to date. His name was Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328). He set himself on self-proclaimed mission of reviving basic teachings of Islam. His fundamental ideological philosophy reinserted the violent concept of ‘Takfir’ – accusing a fellow Muslim of apostasy: of having left the fold of Islam and being a disbeliever (kafir). It was a provocation whose flames were historically put out by the defeat of Kharijites (896). Theological and sectarian differences were always there since the death of Prophet (pbuh), exaggerated after the tragic incident of Karbala and resulted in theological wars after the works of Ibn Taymiyyah. Rationalism and science went to backdrop after the Golden Ages.

European renaissance and growth in Muslim Empires

The years between 1300 and 1700 were a time of geographical expansion for the Muslim world. The Byzantine Empire was fading, and the Seljuk Turk state had been destroyed by the Mongols. Islamic empires were established in the Middle East and India. In 16th century Ottomans conquered Persia, Syria, Palestine, Arabia, Southeastern Europe and North Africa as far west as Tripoli. It was a huge empire. Although Muslim Empire witnessed rapid geographic and economic growth, it also started to suffer from intellectual backwardness as no attempts were made to revive the lost legacy of Golden Age of Islam.

On the other hand, 15th and 16th century were a time of momentous change across Europe as scholars, artists, and philosophers rediscovered classical texts, arts, and ideals primarily relating to Golden Age of Islam. The quest for knowledge threw new light on established ideas about Church and state, leading to the religious upheaval of the Reformation and the spread of radical Protestantism in northern Europe. The invention of mechanical printing press by German metal worker Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 was the most crucial development of this age. While Europe was awakening to the arts, an equally important scientific awakening was occurring, begun by Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo (1564-1642), whose observations led them to conclude that the Earth revolved around the sun. Francis Bacon (1561-1630) asserted that science must be based on observation and mathematics. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) developed the laws of planetary motion, and Isaac Newton developed his theory of gravity and invented calculus to prove it. All of this work evolved from foundation laid by great Muslim scientists of the Golden Age. This scientific development had a profound impact, firstly challenging the absolute authority of the Church and secondly laying down the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution.

Industrial and Agricultural revolution in Europe and decline of Muslim empires

The three great Muslim Empires Safavid, Moghul and Ottoman were all in decline by the end of the 18th century. A renowned Historian Karen Armstrong in her book “Islam: A short story” suggests that main reason why Islamic societies have not been able to overcome their empires’ demise in the 1700s is that agrarian economy, which was the back bone of Muslim Empires, has natural constraints to economic and military expansion at the same time the introduction of Western capitalism led to dramatic acceleration of production, which gave the decisive edge in financing its imperial endeavours, including the conquest and subjugation of the formerly Ottoman, Moghul and Saffavid empires.

Muslims not being able to revive their Golden Age were in constant decline whereas West started to thrive after renaissance. The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions in Europe transformed a mostly rural society into a modern, urbanised, industrial power. Its effects later spread across Europe and America, causing enormous social change and economic growth.

Another important event in this era was the birth of fundamentalist legacy of Wahhabism. Nearly after 500 years after Ibn Tamiyah, Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahab (1703-1792) set the broadened stage of ‘Takfir’ philosophy. His works had significant influence later changed the course of Islam in the contemporary times. Abdul Wahab set himself on an undertaking to revitalise the teachings of Ibn Taymiah that had long been forgotten in a region where Islam had initiated.

Modern world and Islam

The history of West, as is the case with Muslims, is also marred by bloody battles, civil wars and world wars. However, it did not impede the scientific and industrial revolution set in motion since renaissance the foundation of which was actually the Golden Age of Islam. Post war former colonies of West became new nations and countries struggled for democracy. Mass communications, rapid transportation, the internet and global trade continue to transform the world. Islamic world is however still suffering from a centuries-old crisis of confidence, born of the loss of its place at the forefront of world civilisation.

Islam is increasingly being associated with terrorism and militancy. People claim talibanisation and terrorism a creation of last few decades, which is actually not the case. Its roots lie right back in the history in legacy of Kharijites and works of Ibn Tamiyah and Abdul Wahab. Syed Qutb, regarded as the father of modern fundamentalism is often cited as the figure that influenced the Al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama Bin Laden. Similar to Al-Wahab’s theory that Islam had become a stranger, Qutb argued that Muslims had allowed non-Islamic ideas and practices to contaminate Islam and that living a truly Islamic life required Muslims not only to believe but to act in accordance with Islamic law. Same is the case with Dr Fadl, the person who helped Bin Laden create Al-Qaeda. It was him who led it into the Ibn Taymiyah’s ‘Takfiri’ theology that allows Muslims to excommunicate other Muslims for any petty offence against sharia and lawfully kill them in jihad. He later became the most important dissenter to Al-Qaeda but it was too late. It is a pity that after the decline of Golden Age of Islam clergy indulged in theological wars and sectarian conflicts declaring one another kafirs but did not attempt to revive the science, philosophy and arts which West absorbed and set the base for modern world.

Need for Islamic renaissance

Dr Mubarik Haider in his book ‘Tehzeebi Nargisiat’ (Civilisational Narcissism) writes:

“The culture of Madrasah and clergy has negatively impacted the psychology of Muslim youth. Conservatism and fundamentalism are most important aspects of this culture which has resulted in terrorism. We have got used to living in pain and causing pain to others. Whether it is Imam of our mosques or an ordinary Muslim, he takes pride in declaring that we have destroyed others. For example we have destroyed Russia, are destroying America and will destroy India. If time comes we shall declare to destroy China as well. But you shall never hear from that Imam whether we build or helped in restoration of something. He is not interested in solving problems of common men. He is proud that he can destroy.”

It is very unfortunate that Islam today has been hijacked by those who cannot relate to reason. This is a sad decline which has no bottom. We have to dig in our lost history of Muslim scientists, philosophers and artists to revive the golden era and its books should form an integral part of our academia. Muslims have to work for an Islamic renaissance.



  • ‘The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization’ by Jonathan Lyons
  • ‘Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists’ by Michael H. Morgan
  • ‘Islam: A short history’ by Karen Armstrong
  • ‘I used to know the world history’ by Emma Marriot
  • ‘On the boundaries of theological tolerance in Islam, Abu Hamid al Ghazali’s Faysal al Tafriqa’ by Sherman A. Jackson
  • ‘The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future’ by Vali Nasr
  • ‘Sectarian War: Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Violence and Its Links to the Middle East’ by Khaled Ahmad
  • ‘Tehzeebi Nargisiat’ by Dr Mubarik Haider
  •  Archives of Iqbal Latif:


This blog was published on Pak Tea House.


3 thoughts on “Muslim Identity Crises: From Golden Ages to Militancy

  1. An interesting and enlightening read. To be honest I wasn’t aware of these sides to Islamic history. I shall surely read the sources listed down. A great job by the writer.


  2. Pingback: Writing Space – In my room in solitude | Dirt Road

Please share your feedback

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s