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The Gates of Ijtihad THE GATES OF IJTIHAD Intellectual Freedom a

Intellectual Freedom and Constraint in Classical Islam

The brilliance of classical Islamic civilization in its first four centuries is inescapable, and for the West it is no recent discovery. Indeed, knowledge of Islamic intellectual achievements, and the fact that at one time they greatly surpassed the West, are both deeply rooted in Western intellectual lore. The medieval West recovered much of its "lost" Greek intellectual heritage, such as Aristotle, not directly from Greek or even classical Latin but through translations from Arabic (Rosenthal, 1965, p. 14).

The crowning achievement of classical astronomy, the work of Claudius Ptolemy, is still known by its Arabic name, Almagest, rather than the Greek Syntaxis. Most of the traditional star names in Western usage -- Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, Rigel, and a couple of hundred others -- are likewise of Arabic origin, as are a number of other scholarly or scientific terms such as algebra. Another feature of the Islamic classical age, dominance of the Mediterranean Sea and its commerce, is preserved by the Arabic-derived word used in every European language for the commander of a naval fleet: admiral (Savory, 1976, p. 124).

This Western consciousness of classical Islamic intellectual achievements is, however, closely linked to another long-established Western perception, namely that Islamic intellectual life stagnated after the classical period, and has either made no subsequent progress or has actually retrogressed. A number of reasons have been given for this decline. The political disintegration of the Caliphate in the later classical period has been identified as one possible cause.

The great synthesis attempted by the Arabic philosophers, on the lines of Aristotle and Plato, thus breaks down in later times entirely. This surely is not without relation to the splintering and weakening of the Arab state, which proceeded apace after the fourth/tenth century (...

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