Meg Lee Chin

Around 600 CE the prophet Muhammad spawned a great civilization through his teachings. At one time Muslim libraries contained more books and literature than in the entire Greek world. They studied spherical trigonometry, agriculture, physics, medicine and science, using astrolabes to measure the altitude of stars. They built sophisticated astronomical observatories. They set up psychiatric hospitals and even had universal health care. Early Muslims had literacy rates that would put the modern day Muslim World to shame.

A cornerstone of Muhammad's teachings was an encouragement of intellectual discourse. There was a love of learning and respect for principles of debate. It was expected that interpretation of the Qu'ran would continue to evolve with the times. At its peak the Islamic world was publishing tens of thousands of books annually.

At the end of the 14th Century a group of elite religious scholars became threatened by the multitude of interpretations given to the Qu'ran. They believed the writers to be theologically unqualified. Furthermore these writings began to undermine their authority and control over the masses.

They spent the next 100 years closing the "Gates of Ijithad" so that independent reasoning on matters of religion was effectively outlawed. Where disagreement and diversity was once seen as beneficial to intellectual growth, any small divergence of opinion soon lead to division and fragmentation. This marked the splintering of the Islamic world which weakened the great civilization. Today the Islamic world is a shadow of it's former self.

We in the west are at the same crossroads with talk of fake news and censorship. As with Islam this movement is spearheaded by a ruling elite threatened by the diversity of internet publishings. Their plans to restrict speech fall under the guise of concern for our safety.

But the biggest threat to our civilization is not knives, bullets, tanks or bombs. The biggest problem is the inability of our citizens to engage in civilised discussion over matters which we disagree. Those with opinions contrary to our own are shunned in favour of self congratulatory echo chambers. Debate has been reduced to insults and personal attack. Where disagreement once enriched us, today it leads to fragmentation and splitting based upon political opinion and ideology.

It seems history does repeat itself. We have a lot to learn from Islam.


Ijtihad (Arabic: اجتهاد‎‎ ijtihād, lit. effort, physical or mental, expended in a particular activity) is an Islamic legal term referring to independent reasoning or the thorough exertion of a jurist's mental faculty in finding a solution to a legal question.

"The exercise of critical thinking and independent judgment – or Ijtihad --was an important way to address questions in the early centuries of Islam. After approximately 400 years, however, the leaders of the Sunni Muslim world closed the "Gates of Ijtihad;" Muslims were no longer allowed use itjihad to solve problems. If a seemingly new problem arose, they were supposed to find an analogy from earlier scholars and apply that ruling to the problem that arose. From the 10thcentury onwards, Sunni Muslim leaders began to see questioning as politically dangerous to their ability to rule. Regrettably, Sunni Muslim leaders reject the use of itjihad to this day." From