Causes of the Decline of the Islamic Civilisation

Shahid H. Raja
8 min readMar 14, 2024

Introduction

The initial centuries of Islamic civilization often heralded as the Golden Age spanning from the 8th to the 14th centuries, were characterized by remarkable achievements across diverse disciplines. Scholars of this era made significant strides in multiple disciplines. An intellectual ethos prevailed, encouraging the pursuit of knowledge through cross-cultural exchanges with past civilisations, and fostering a spirit of innovation.

The gradual deceleration in the progress observed during the Golden Age of Islamic civilization unfolded over time, marked by increasing conservatism within Islamic societies. This conservatism led to a decline in openness to new ideas and innovation through various mechanisms. Fanaticism and dogmatism spread to juridical and theological schools, resulting in rigid adherence to specific interpretations of Islamic teachings and suppression of alternative views.

This stifling of intellectual diversity limited the adaptability of the civilization to changing circumstances. Cultural conservatism discouraged open discourse, especially on religious matters, hindering scholars from engaging in critical discussions and pursuing innovative ideas. Resistance to change and the influence of cultural conservatism on governance structures further impeded societal adaptability and progress.

Additionally, the closure of Ijtihad, perceived as limiting intellectual growth, contributed to the stagnation of legal and ethical discourse, hindering the development of frameworks adaptable to evolving societal needs. While the closure of Ijtihad was not universal and occurred in specific historical contexts, it symbolized a broader trend towards intellectual stagnation and a decline in the vibrancy of Islamic civilization’s intellectual and cultural achievements.

As a result of adverse trends observed in Islamic countries, including the closure of ijtihad, non-patronage of educational institutions, neglect of scientific inquiry, and political fragmentation, a decline in Islamic civilization began to manifest in various ways. These adverse trends collectively contributed to the gradual decline of Islamic civilization, impacting its cultural, intellectual, and socio-economic foundations.

Conversely, while the Islamic civilization experienced decline, a gradual ascendency in Europe began to emerge, driven by several factors.

  1. Firstly, the Renaissance period witnessed a resurgence of interest in classical learning, art, and culture, leading to significant advancements in various fields such as literature, philosophy, and science.
  2. Secondly, the Age of Exploration enabled European powers to expand their global influence through maritime expeditions, leading to the discovery of new lands, resources, and trade routes.
  3. Thirdly, the Scientific Revolution saw breakthroughs in scientific inquiry and experimentation, laying the foundation for modern scientific principles and methodologies.
  4. Additionally, the Enlightenment era promoted ideals of reason, liberty, and progress, fostering intellectual and social transformation across European societies.

These factors collectively propelled Europe into a period of unprecedented growth, innovation, and influence, contrasting with the declining trajectory of Islamic civilization.

Causes of the Decline of Islamic Civilisation

While it is evident that Muslim societies, once at the forefront, began to lag, allowing European counterparts to surpass them, the precise causes of this relative decline in art, science, and industry remain subjects of extensive scholarly debate. There are four schools of thought about the causes of the relative decline of the Islamic civilisation.

A. Islam as the Main Cause

One school of thought posits that the decline of Islamic civilisation can be traced back to the teachings of Islam itself. People like Basil Mathews and Bernard Lewis who worked as agents of MI6 in its Middle East office, and true believers in the “Clash of Civilizations argue that Islam, as a religion, is perceived as inherently resistant to progress and innovation, placing excessive emphasis on obedience and potentially suppressing intellectual inquiry.

Opponents of this perspective argue that Islam cannot be pinpointed as the cause for the gradual decline of Islamic civilization. They maintain that there is no explicit prohibition within the holy book of Muslims or the teachings of their prophet that could be interpreted as discouraging followers from seeking new knowledge.

Secondly, they contend, that if Islam had prohibited its followers from pursuing new knowledge, then how do they explain the Golden Age of Islam spanning from the 8th century to the 14th century during which Islamic civilization was marked by a vibrant intellectual culture? Embracing knowledge from various traditions, including Greek, Persian, and Indian, Muslim scholars made significant advancements in fields such as mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, suggesting a compatibility between Islam and intellectual pursuits.

B. Muslims as the Main Cause

Another perspective posits that the decline of Islamic civilization cannot solely be attributed to Islam itself, but rather to the actions and behaviours of Muslims, both as citizens and rulers. This view suggests that Muslims deviated from practising Islam in its true essence, which consequently led to their lagging behind. It argues that Islam, when properly understood and followed, encourages intellectual exploration and scientific inquiry. Advocates of this viewpoint, such as Iqbal, highlight the cessation of Ijtihad as a factor contributing to intellectual stagnation, as it stifled critical thinking and resistance to change.

Moreover, moral decadence, characterized by dishonesty and neglect of obligations, is seen as reflective of broader societal shifts. This decline in moral values affected various social institutions, including family structures, educational systems, and religious organizations, leading to an erosion of societal foundations. Changes in cultural values, marked by a departure from ethical principles outlined in Islamic teachings, contributed to a less ethical and moral society, hindering progress in fields such as innovation and cooperation.

Additionally, the decline in moral values led to increased corruption within governance structures, exacerbating other challenges faced by the civilization and diminishing the effectiveness of leadership. Cultural values, reflected in literature, art, and other forms of expression, provide insights into the changing ethos of society and its impact on the civilization as a whole.

C. Muslim Rulers as the Main Cause

According to certain scholars, internal conflicts, disunity, and power struggles among Muslim rulers were key factors in weakening the political structure of Islamic civilization, rendering it susceptible to external threats. Disunity within the ummah led to the fragmentation of political power, with different regions and dynasties pursuing their own interests rather than working towards shared objectives.

This lack of a unified political framework resulted in ineffective governance at both regional and central levels, making it difficult to address internal challenges and external threats such as economic decline and military invasions. Political disunity also disrupted trade routes and economic activities, contributing to economic challenges and disparities in wealth distribution.

Moreover, fragmented political landscapes made different regions more vulnerable to external threats, as seen in historical examples such as the Mongol invasions and the Crusades. Overall, disunity and political instability weakened the political structure of Islamic civilization, leading to fragmented governance, economic challenges, vulnerability to external threats, and a diminished capacity to address internal issues.

D. External Aggression as the Main Cause

External aggression, primarily through events such as the Mongol invasions and the Crusades, is highlighted by some scholars as a principal factor contributing to the decline of Islamic civilization. These conflicts inflicted multifaceted damage on Islamic societies, leading to the widespread destruction of cities, including crucial cultural and intellectual hubs.

The pillaging and plundering of resources by invading forces, coupled with the loss of key regions and agricultural lands, significantly weakened the economic foundations of Islamic societies, resulting in economic stagnation. Moreover, the fragmentation of political power within the Islamic world due to invasions created a state of perpetual instability, hindering effective responses to external challenges.

The destruction of libraries and centres of learning during invasions hindered intellectual progress, disrupting scholarly networks and collaborations and resulting in a loss of valuable knowledge and scholarship. Additionally, the psychological impact on the inhabitants, coupled with mass migrations of populations seeking refuge, further destabilized Islamic civilization.

Conversely, periods of strong patronage in Muslim societies fostered intellectual endeavours by actively promoting and funding educational institutions and scholarly pursuits. However, declines in patronage led to a scarcity of resources and institutional support for scholars, stifling intellectual growth and limiting the exploration of new ideas.

Was the closure of Ijtihad the main cause of the decline of the Islamic Civilisation?

It is commonly believed that the practice of ijtihad continued among Sunni Muslims both theoretically and practically until the end of the 5th Hijri century. However, by the 14th century AH, a famous controversy arose among Muslim jurists and political philosophers regarding the permissibility of ijtihad. Sunni jurists eventually concluded that most major legal questions had been addressed, leading to a gradual restriction of the scope of ijtihad, known as the “closing of the gate of ijtihad” concept.

According to these scholars, the closure of Ijtihad had a profound adverse effect on the rise of Islamic civilization, particularly in the realm of technological innovation and educational development. By restricting independent reasoning and interpretation, the closure of Ijtihad contributed to intellectual stagnation, hindering the exploration of new ideas and technological progress.

This stagnation led to a reluctance to embrace new technologies and methodologies, thereby limiting the civilization’s ability to compete globally and maintain economic prosperity. Additionally, the decline in educational standards resulting from the closure of Ijtihad deprived future generations of critical thinking skills and access to quality education, diminishing human capital and hindering social and economic development.

The erosion of educational standards also jeopardized the preservation and transmission of cultural and scientific knowledge, impacting the continuity of intellectual traditions and cultural identity within Islamic civilization. Moreover, a shift in cultural values away from intellectual pursuits further exacerbated the decline in educational institutions, leading to a regression in educational philosophy and curriculum. Ultimately, the closure of Ijtihad significantly contributed to the overall decline of Islamic civilization by stifling intellectual growth, impeding technological advancement, and undermining educational progress.

However, recent scholarship has challenged this notion, demonstrating that the practice of ijtihad persisted throughout Islamic history as a fundamental aspect of Islamic jurisprudence. Even during the Early Modern Period, claims advocating for ijtihad and its superiority over blind imitation (taqlid) were consistently made. This is evident in debates within Muslim political philosophy, which frequently explore the balance between independent reasoning (ijtihad) and adherence to traditional interpretations (taqlid) when interpreting and applying Islamic law.

The tension between ijtihad and taqlid has significant implications for governance and legal systems. While some Muslim political scholars advocate for a conservative approach, emphasizing taqlid and strict adherence to traditional interpretations, the majority emphasizes the importance of ijtihad and the adaptation of Islamic jurisprudence to meet the evolving needs of society.

(Kindly read this article of mine to know more about this controversy https://shahidhraja.medium.com/treatment-of-ijtihad-by-different-muslim-political-philosophers-be03a7e152ac)

Conclusion

The decline of Islamic civilization in the early 11th century was a complex process influenced by various factors. While Islam had played a positive role in the earlier centuries of its civilization, several elements contributed to its weakening. The interplay of political, economic, social, and cultural elements, along with intellectual and demographic changes, contributed to the weakening and eventual collapse of the once-flourishing civilization.

The closure of Ijtihad, a shift away from intellectual pursuits, and a decline in educational standards may have collectively contributed to the decline of Islamic civilization. The regression in education can have profound and interconnected consequences, affecting not only the intellectual vibrancy of society but also its social, economic, and cultural foundations.

The reluctance to embrace new ideas, coupled with the cessation of Ijtihad, may have contributed to technological stagnation in Islamic civilization. Falling behind in technological advancements can have far-reaching implications for economic prosperity, competitiveness, and the ability to navigate global challenges, potentially contributing to the decline of civilization.

From the Ebook “Muslim Political Philosophy: A Hand Book”, published by Amazon and available at

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