Knowledge in circulation, from East to West

PublishedSeptember 28, 2018
Knowledge in circulation, from East to West

The notions of East and West were first literally described as geographical directions, but today in the social sciences they are mostly used to depict the world’s two great different civilizations. There is some simplification here, but it is useful as a starting point. These terms, which are longstanding and deeply entrenched, would have been first more precisely used in ancient Greece and then the Roman Empire. In general, Roman people had classified themselves as Westerners and saw other civilizations as sometimes barbaric but generally as Easterners. Particularly during the golden period of the Ottoman Empire, these notions intensified, largely coming from religious motives in the West. With the rise of the Orientalist disciplines in the Western world, the very notions were further regarded as the root cause that led to the clash of civilizations, i.e. the recurring collision between the East and West. In time, the Orientalists argued that these notions were more than enough to explain the world’s discrepancies and dilemmas of their times; yet their claim was proved wrong in later years. This was partly because other civilizations apart from Europe and America had already started identifying themselves as the part of the East. Then, the word “civilization” itself was defined as an oppressive tool. Genuinely enough, the idea of the clash of civilizations still contains the built-in idea of “supremacy,” both ideologically and sociologically.

A journey in time

In today’s contemporary world, the West appears as the leading civilization in science and knowledge; however, civilization, knowledge and science are in fact the common heritage of all of mankind. Key parts of the West’s own doctrines and arguments also belong to the Greeks, Chinese, Persians, Turks and others; they are in fact indivisible parts of this common heritage as well. To refute the Western thesis of supremacy, the basic historical data, reached very easily with a short internet search, is enough to share below.

The university as an institution – the center of modern knowledge – first appeared in Morocco and the Arabic language was the language of science back in time as just as today’s English. The prominent center of science and intellectual life, called Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom), was established by the Abbasid Caliphate in the late 8th century, during the Islamic Golden Age. The center was surely the reflection and practice of the hadiths of the Islamic Prophet Muhammed on knowledge; “Seek knowledge even unto China,” or “Knowledge from which no benefit is derived is like a treasure out of which nothing is spent in the cause of God.” Indeed, the apple that fell on Isaac Newton’s head was actually the apple of Ibn Sina (Avicenna), hence the Muslim polymath is today defined as the pioneer of modern physics.

The masterpieces and inventions of Muslim scholars in the Mesopotamia and Anatolia regions in many scientific areas including optics, mechanics, motion and so on guided Western scholars in later years. Some 500 years before the Italian thinker of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, Ibn al-Haytham, called as the father of modern optics, discovered the principles of modern optics in Iraq’s Basra region. Almost four centuries before the Renaissance-era mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus, Persian Omar Khayyam in Khorasan, in present-day Iran, told in his poems that the world indeed orbits the sun. Nasir al-Din Tusi first revealed the foundations of a sun-centered astronomy. The Andalusian scholar, Ibn Rushd, or known as Averroes, brought extensive comments on Aristotle’s teachings in relation to and in accordance with Islamic principles. Such a philosophical comment spread across the whole European continent in a short time; thus, he was later and is still called as “the Commentator” in the West.

The Turkish Seljukis founded a higher education institution, the Nizamiyyahm and the establishment of these Turkish higher schools in eleventh century was the first major educational reform in history. New notions, theses, methodologies, argumentations were generated by the scholars of these schools and a common knowledge started growing. The legacy of these schools ended with a sad and unfortunate incident when the Mongols invaded, destroyed and burned the libraries and buildings of the institutions.

The 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics winner, the French physician Pierre Curie, says “we splatted the atom only with the 30 books left us from Andalusia. If we could have the chance to examine the hundreds of thousands of books, which had been burned by Hulagu Khan [The Mongol ruler that burned the very books of the Islamic civilization], we would be now playing football between the galaxies.”

In later times, the common knowledge of mankind expanded thanks to the contribution of the scientific and technologic developments during the Ottoman Period. The world’s greatest empire at the time, the Ottomans excelled in science until the beginning of a period when stagnation set in during the mid-18th century. After that period, the Islamic world faced a drastic decline in knowledge, science and technology. Here is the sophisticated and central question, which is supposed to be asked by the Islamic world to itself: Why did the Islamic world experience such a downfall?

Ibn Khaldun’s message

According to Tunisian scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), scholarly advancement depends on political or economic foundations, having said that “knowledge improves in wealthy societies.

“Let’s look at what we know about Baghdad, Cordoba, Basra or Kufa. In the first century of Islam, while these cities were populous and in the lap of luxury, the civilization was stable and the the sea of science grew and overflew. Scholars were marvelous on focusing on different problems and theories in the terminological and technical details of knowledge until they outdid their predecessors and followers. However, when the welfare of cities decreased and the civilization regressed and the population was scattered, knowledge and education disappeared and came away to other Islamic towns,” Khaldun writes.

In fact, the fate of those cities unfolded just as Khaldun predicted. The route of knowledge and science turned from Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the Iberian Peninsula to Renaissance Europe and then to the United Kingdom during the time of the Industrial Revolution. When civilizations evolve to such a point and then collapse, knowledge becomes dull and then vanishes. Europe discovering the “new world” made the West into the new pioneer of knowledge. Of course, this leadership does not always make you good.

In the 16th and 17the centuries, Spanish sailors landed in Latin America, and occupied that region for imperial purposes, looking mainly to extract gold and silver. Since the local people didn’t have a strong central authority and were loosely organized into small groups, it was a proverbial piece of cake for the Spanish to efficiently exploit the continent; they then began collecting taxes, food and tribute. Meanwhile, the British followed a similar policy in North America and colonized the continent. The outcome of the Industrial Revolution brought about many new requirements for the British and directed them to discover new resources to use. The technological developments in the British economy, coupled with a Protestant morality and worldview, created a non-mercantilist economic system. New doctrines were developed and espoused and the era of invention flourished. The issuing of patents for inventions escalated and increased the level of competition in European societies while accordingly boosting scientific improvement.

The impacts of the Industrial Revolution

So while we are seeing a political and economic acceleration in the European countries, let’s call it the West, the Eastern countries couldn’t catch up with the cutting-edge enhancements of the time. The era of imitating the West began in the Eastern world; which naturally remained incapable. The replica transformation efforts of the East made its own societies lose their true identity and become alienated with their own sociological structure; these problems were further exacerbated by instabilities in governance and welfare.

Every civilization has a limited lifetime, Ibn Khaldun warned a long time ago, and the limits of this lifetime, in reality, depend on the economic and political welfare of the civilization in question. Therefore, unless the Muslim world, or in this context let’s call it the East, cannot overcome its severe challenges and enter into a transformation process to become a more stable, financially-powerful and politically-effective civilization, its fate is likely to be the same in the future as it is today.

* Ph.D. student in Constitutional Law at Istanbul Şehir University


4 replies

  1. In modern times, when a civilization is based on dogmatic faith, that is forbidden to question and to try to refute, women locked between walls of home, and segregated from the realities of the world, while they are the first and most important educators of the children, such a society is judged to be left behind. Not only the “Western”, societies understood it, but also Eastern,….. East of the Muslim world, China, and East Asia. Yes, the Muslims uses to be the leaders of human culture, then their competitors, the Christians were even more dogmatic and despotic than them. Unless secularism will be introduced to the Muslim world, destructive powers will have their upper hand, and the phenomenon of extremism will prevail.

    • As you correctly state Muslims used to be the leader in education, including the Muslim ladies. The oldest University of the world after all was founded by a Muslim lady in Morocco see (Fatima al-Fihri in 859). In this modern age many Muslim institutions are trying to ‘catch up’. Among them are the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at (, who is paying much attention to education (and has already one Nobel Prize winner, Prof. Dr. Abdus Salam). The Ismaili Jama’at of the Aga Khan also are very active in this regard, having their own Universities. Gulf Arabs are spending a lot of money on education, although, yes, real results are still being awaited.

    • I just wonder: how come these ladies, who are supposed to be ‘locked up behind walls’ are bossing me around all the time?

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