Islam's Invented Golden Age & the Golden Age of Islamic Studies" by Dr. Asad Q. Ahmed


"The role of rationalist scholars in the Islamic civilizations was much more than what it is today. Many of the rationalist scholars belonged to the establishment; they not only sat as judges in the courts or passed fatwas, but they also served as court poets, tax collectors, diplomats, personal physicians, and cartographers."
- Dr. Asad Q. Ahmed

Karachi, November 11, 2015: Institute of Business Administration (IBA) hosted the latest installment of the Distinguished Lecture Series in which Dr. Asad Q. Ahmed explored the issue of the decline in Islamic Science and rationalist disciplines since 1200 CE to the early modern era. The speaker argues that this narrative of decline must be jettisoned given the bulk of newly available data and that more theoretical and sophisticated models and frameworks must be devised in order to answer the question.

Dr. Asad Q Ahmed is an Associate Professor of Arabic & Islamic Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the University of California, Berkeley. He did his BA from Yale University, majoring from the Department of Philosophy & the Department of Literature. Subsequently, he was awarded a Ph.D. in 2007 from the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University.

He specializes in early Islamic social and religious history and post-classical Muslim intellectual history. Though he has worked extensively on Islamic intellectual history of the so-called classical period (ca. 800-1200 CE), his current focus is the period ca. 1200-1900 CE, especially with reference to the Indian subcontinent. He has authored The Religious Elite of the Early Islamic Hijaz (University of Oxford, 2011) and Avicenna's Deliverance: Logic (Oxford University Press, 2011). He is also the co-editor of The Islamic Scholarly Tradition (Brill, 2010). Born in New York to Pakistani parents, this widely published young scholar has rigorous command over some ten classical and modern languages including Greek, Latin, Arabic and French.

In the last session of IBA Distinguished Lecture Series in conversation with Ayesha Jalal, we talked about why history is significant. Continuing with the tradition, IBA Social Sciences Club under the patronage of Dr. Noman Ul Haq collaborated with the Student Council to bring to light another important matter. Dr. Asad Q Ahmed, our esteemed guest speaker, took to the stage to refute a widely accepted narrative about the Golden Age of Islam and the subsequent decline of Islamic rationalism.

Mr. Ateeb Gul, our moderator for the evening, commenced the session. The panelists included Dr. Azam Ali, Assistant Professor, IBA and Dr. Faiza Mushtaq, Assistant Professor, Social Sciences & Liberal Art, IBA.

'The narrative of decline in the post-classical period of Islam, in theory from ca. 1200 to the present, is an invention of rather uninformed oriental scholarship.'


Dr. Ahmed began by saying that he had 'quite a bit to undo', and throughout his talk, Dr. Ahmed gave us examples from scholars of the 13th, 14th and 15th century, as well as scholars of the subcontinent from the 19th century, to discuss science and rationalism in Islam for the post classical period that began from the year 1200 onward. He hoped that this session would give us some sense of the complexity of the tradition and help us jettison simplistic narratives.

Dr. Ahmed structured his talk in three parts. In the first part he talked about the grand narrative that currently exists among both Muslims and non-Muslims. The purpose of reviewing the received narrative was to re-familiarize the audience with the narrative of the progress of Islamic intellectual history. He talked about the idea that the initial 400 years of Islam saw a massive translation movement in which Greek, Sanskrit, Pahlavi and other works were translated into Arabic. Hence, the rationalist tradition was dynamic and Muslims absorbed these sciences from foreign traditions, studied them and actualized them. Through this period we get famous names like Farawi, Al-Kindi and Ibn-e-Sina. There is no doubt, either among the orientalists or non-orientalists, that these scholars made tremendous contributions to the progress of Science, Astronomy, and Philosophy and so on in the Islamic tradition. But as the narrative goes, we are told that in the later 11th or 12th century there had been attacks on scientific tradition by traditionalist scholars who chased away the enlightenment patrons and scientific traditions from Islam. The chief among these traditional scholars, or so we are told, was Al-Ghazali after which we entered the Dark Age that led to a sharp decline in scientific tradition.

In the second part of his talk Dr. Ahmed gave details to demonstrate that Muslim conceptualization of rationalist and scientific enterprise prior to the 19th century can be used to jettison the narratives that he presented in the first part. Through close reading of extracts from some major scholarly works including Al-Ghazali's Tahafut al Falasifah (Destruction of the Philosophers) and through examples of mathematical discoveries like the Tusi couple, Dr. Ahmed broke the grand narrative apart to reveal its many flaws.

The third and final part of his talk delved into the engagements with scientific traditions of Muslim scholars from the subcontinent including Ashraf Ali Thanawi and Ahmed Raza Khan Barelwi.

Dr. Ahmed's talk closely linked to two courses- History of Ideas I & II, which happen to be mandatory for students of Social Sciences & Liberal Arts. The talk was followed by a panel discussion among the panelists, in which they questioned different aspects of the talk. A short Q & A session ensued in which the students asked meaningful questions linking them to articles by Dr. Ahmed.

The talk ended on a promising note as Dr. Noman Ul Haq presented Dr. Asad Ahmed and with a token of gratitude and an assurance to the audience that more talks will be arranged with Dr. Asad Ahmed in the near future.