Islam's divinity through science - The savior of Western Civilization?
BY JONATHON LYONS
Posted on Fri, Jul. 31, 2009
Recent public opinion surveys show a majority of Americans see ``little'' or ``nothing'' to admire in Islam or the Muslim world. Seventy percent say Islam has nothing in common with their own faith, an increase from 59 percent two years earlier.
Those with the strongest anti-Muslim views rely most on the media -- not personal experience, travel or study -- for their information about Islam. Nor is the nation's educational elite any less immune to the power of the predominant media narrative of Islam as irrevocably violent, anti-modern, anti-women and anti-democratic.
This same narrative dominates every aspect of the way we think and speak about Islam. It shapes how we listen to what Muslims say and how we interpret what it is they do. As such, it exercises a corrosive effect on everything from politics and theology to international relations, human rights and national security policies, including today's ``war on terrorism.''
This has left the West intellectually and politically unable to respond successfully to some of the most significant challenges of the early-21st century -- the rise of Islamist political power, the more narrow emergence of terrorism in the name of Islam, tensions between Western social values and multicultural rights on the part of growing Muslim immigrant populations.
Often overlooked in discussions of contemporary relations between Islam and the West are the broad historical, intellectual and philosophical ideas that literally dictate how we as Westerners apprehend the world of Islam and the Muslims. If we take just one obscure corner of this vast field -- that of the history of medieval science -- we may be able to learn much about our views of Islam, and about ourselves as well.
Our starting point is the 11th century, the era of the Crusades. Before that, Christian Europe looked upon the Muslims with indifference; they were a nuisance to shipping and coastal settlements, but they were certainly not seen as an existential threat. All that changed in the run-up to the First Crusade, proclaimed in 1095. Now, a distinct portrait of Islam began to take shape in the medieval Western mind, with the practices and beliefs of the Muslims conceived as mirror-opposites of self-evident Christian virtues.
Where Christianity stands for love, Islam is a religion of violence; where Christ stands for truth, Muhammad and the Quran stand for falsehood; where Christians are chaste, Muslims are sexual deviants. Over time, these notions acquired a number of corollaries: Muslims are backward, and fearful of modernity; the West is rational, Islam is irrational and fanatical. In an observation as apt now as when it was first advanced 900 years ago, one chronicler of the First Crusade acknowledged that it was not important to actually know anything about Islam in order to attack it: ``It is safe to speak evil of one whose malignity exceeds whatever ill can be spoken.''
One of the most salient aspects of the medieval history of science is the relationship between sacred and profane knowledge. Under the influence of Augustine and other Church Fathers, the early Christian world saw no reason to explore what the Ancient Greeks had called ``the nature of things.''
Yet, things looked quite different to the Muslims. Arab scholars found divine support for science in the Quran, the revealed Word of God. A number of verses refer to the order inherent to God's universe and to man's capacity to exploit this order for his own needs, such as keeping time. Elsewhere, the Quran advocates the use of God's creation for orientation amid the featureless deserts and navigation across the oceans. By one scholar's count, the Arabic word for ``knowledge'' (ilm) and related terms comprise almost 1 percent of the Quran's 78,000 words and are among its most frequently used terms, a feature that highlights just how important the concept was for the first Muslims.
At the same time, many of Islam's rituals demand a sophisticated understanding of the natural world. Believers could not simply follow the example of Augustine and close their eyes ``to the course of the stars.'' Rather, Muslims are required to know the proper times of the five daily prayers, the precise direction of Mecca -- known as the qibla -- and the start of the lunar fasting month of Ramadan.
Nowhere was the interaction of faith and science more important than in the question of the qibla. The earliest Muslims of Central Asia and Spain simply directed their prayers to the south, in imitation of the Prophet Muhammad when he was in Medina, which is to the north of the holy city. As Muslims' scientific understanding of their universe became more sophisticated, they began to demand greater accuracy in conforming their practice to the sacred geography of Islam.
What is noteworthy here is the way medieval Muslim opinion deferred to the scientists on such an important question of religious ritual. One of the greatest treatises on mathematical geography was a work by Abu Raihan Mohammed Ibn Ahmad al-Biruni, written in the 11th century, to find the direction of Mecca from Afghanistan. His ``Determination of the Coordinates of Cities'' is the first work in history to determine accurate geographic locales with the techniques of spherical trigonometry.
As early as the 9th century, all six trigonometric functions -- sine and cosine, tangent and cotangent, secant and cosecant -- were known. Only the sine function was an import, from Hindu astronomy; the other five were Arab discoveries. This allowed the use of calculations in the place of geometric diagrams and paved the way for the development of modern mathematical astronomy.
Urban areas saw the rise of the mosque-based timekeeper. These were professional scientists, who determined local prayer times, built astronomical instruments, wrote treatises on astronomy, and taught students. Their work included the production of meticulous almanacs -- from the Arabic ``al-manakh'' -- to list the prayer times for each day of the year in such distant locales as China and Morocco. In medieval Cairo, 200 pages of special tables were available for keeping time by the sun and other celestial markers.
Islamic teachings also went hand in hand with other disciplines. Injunctions in the Quran to heal the sick provided great impetus to the study of medicine. The religious ritual of the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca created a need for cartography and navigation. Speculation among Sufi mystics on the transformation of the soul in union with God helped fuel the alchemists' search for ways to transform base metals, laying the groundwork for modern chemistry.
Even many of the foods we eat -- artichokes, oranges, apricots -- and our technical vocabulary -- words like algebra, azimuth, zenith, and zero -- all come from the Arabs. Most important, there evolved the very idea that man was capable of understanding God's universe and of interpreting it for his benefit.
I have gone into considerable detail to challenge the notion of Islam's inherent enmity toward science and innovation because I believe this is a first, crucial step toward restoring the Muslims' rightful place in the history of Western ideas -- and toward transforming the ways in which we think about the Islamic world in general.
When Western ideas of science do allow a role for the Arabs, it is often as caretakers of Greek learning, preserved from loss by Arabic translators until its discovery by Latin scholars, beginning in the 12th century. This notion would have come as a complete shock to medieval Christian thinkers.
The philosopher Roger Bacon, one of the earliest Western proponents of the scientific method, praised the Muslims for their intellectual innovations: ``Philosophy is drawn from the Muslims.'' A leading translator from the Arabic urged his fellow Latin scholars to follow the Muslim lead in astronomy; another hailed Arabs as the only people to truly understand geometry.
It was only with the later rise of the Renaissance that the West -- having feasted on Arab learning for several centuries -- set about to erase the Arab contribution from the historical record. Eager to claim direct descent from the likes of Aristotle and Archimedes, Western thinkers marginalized the role of Arab learning. Francesco Petrarch, often called the father of Renaissance humanism, went so far as to decree: ``I shall scarcely be persuaded that anything good can come from Arabia.''
Here, then, is the origin of the notion of the Renaissance as the ``recovery'' of classical learning, which comprised the natural birthright of Christian Europe. Such accounts are colored profoundly by a Western consensus, often invoked to explain the state of the Muslim world today, that Islam is inherently hostile to innovation.
But what if we were to reject this view? Suddenly, a number of possibilities suggest themselves, and miscellaneous facts that have been floating around start to fall into place. The origins of the Western scientific lexicon -- from azimuth to zenith, from algebra to zero; the unmistakable strains of Arab philosophy throughout the works of Thomas Aquinas and other seminal Western thinkers; the mark of Arabic poetry on the works of the troubadors; the everyday presence on our dinner tables of such crops as hard wheat, watermelon and spinach -- all this starts to take on new meaning.
Suddenly, it becomes possible to reimagine the relationship between Islam and the West as one of internal cultural rivalry, rather than that of unavoidable civilizational conflict. In effect, this would mark a return to the world view captured in one of the most remarkable landmarks in the history of ideas: the world atlas produced by the Muslim scholar Muhammad al-Idrisi in the 12th century by commission of the Christian king of Sicily, which was then multi-faith -- Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox.
Jonathan Lyons is the author, most recently, of The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization. He teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
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