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The Truth About "Islamic Science"
Fjordman - 11/20/2007


According to University of Columbia's Arabic and Islamic Studies Professor George Saliba, "Islamic science" virtually created the modern world. This is a bit odd, since Saliba has reviewed the work done by scholar Toby E. Huff, which concludes that Islamic countries largely failed in developing modern science. I have made a series of posts about this issue myself at Jihad Watch. These posts have also been translated to German, and I also wrote a slightly longer essay.

I have also had the pleasure of reading Huff's book The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West, second edition. If anything, I believe he is sometimes too kind with the Islamic world.

He writes: "Our concern is with the fact that from the eighth century to the end of the fourteenth, Arabic science was probably the most advanced science in the world, greatly surpassing the West and China. In virtually every field of endeavor - in astronomy, alchemy, mathematics, medicine, optics, and so forth - Arab scientists (that is, Middle Eastern individuals primarily using the Arabic language but including Arabs, Iranians, Christians, Jews, and others) were in the forefront of scientific advance. The facts, theories, and scientific speculations contained in their treatises were the most advanced to be had anywhere in the world, including China."

I'm glad he specifies that by the term "Arab science" he actually means anybody who happened to live under Arab-Islamic rule, not necessarily Arab Muslims. Nevertheless, I don't approve of the term. Whatever was achieved in science during this time period was rarely done by Arab Muslims. "Islamic science" was almost totally dependent upon translations, frequently made by non-Muslims, of the achievements of pre-Islamic cultures, Greeks, Egyptians, Indians, etc. Moreover, a striking number of Muslim thinkers were Persians, who owed more to their pre-Islamic heritage than they did to Islam. Still, I consider Huff's work to be one of the best books I have read on the subject of early modern science.

According to Huff, "From the point of view of this study, the modern scientific revolution was both an institutional revolution and an intellectual revolution that reorganized the scheme of natural knowledge and validated a new set of conceptions of man and his cognitive capacities. The forms of reason and rationality that had been fused out of the encounter between Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Christian theology laid a foundation for believing in the essential rationality of man and nature. More importantly, this new metaphysical synthesis found an institutional home in the cultural and legal structures of medieval society - that is, the universities. Together they laid the foundations validating the existence of neutral institutional spaces within which intellects could pursue their intellectual inspiration while asking probing questions. Having laid those foundations, large sections of the Western world in the years after the Renaissance were enabled to go forward with the scientific movement as well as economic and political development."

Jihad Watch Director Robert Spencer has given an excellent overview of the differences between Islamic and Christian theology, including their attitudes toward science, in his book Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn't. Social scientist Rodney Stark states that Islam does not have "a conception of God appropriate to underwrite the rise of science...Allah is not presented as a lawful creator but is conceived of as an extremely active God who intrudes in the world as he deems it appropriate. This prompted the formation of a major theological bloc within Islam that condemns all efforts to formulate natural laws in that they deny Allah's freedom to act." Professor Stanley Jaki observes that the improvements brought by Muslim scientists to the Greek scientific corpus were "never substantial."

The earliest European universities, such as the University of Bologna in Italy and Oxford in England, were created in the eleventh century, but many more were added during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the University of Paris (Sorbonne) grew to prominence. The High Middle Ages (ca. 1000 1300 A.D.) was also the time when the Greco-Roman heritage was slowly recovered in the West. This process began with some translations of Greek texts introduced via Arabic, but was soon replaced, especially after the Crusades, with translations directly from Greek via Byzantine manuscripts acquired from Constantinople.

Thanks to the work of Edward Grant it has been recognized that the foundations for the study of modern science were laid in universities. The natural sciences became "the foundation and core of a medieval university education" because of the unprecedented translation activity of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Perhaps this sounds a bit "Eurocentric," but it is an historical fact that the scientific revolution happened in Europe, not in India, China or the Middle East. There was also nothing quite like the medieval university in the Roman Empire. Whatever existed of real science in Roman times was almost entirely of Greek origins, and even the contributions of the Greeks had been steadily declining for centuries. The Romans were good at certain types of engineering and technology, but like the Chinese they were surprisingly poor at providing a coherent scientific view of the world. The medieval European university then represented a real innovation, and Huff places its development, and the decision to include also natural sciences, not just theology, in its regular curriculum at the center of the scientific achievements of the West:

"We should also not underestimate the magnitude of the step taken when it was decided (in part, following ancient tradition) to make the study of philosophy and all aspects of the natural world an official and public enterprise. If this seems a mundane achievement, it is due to our Eurocentrism which forgets that the study of the natural sciences and philosophy was shunned in the Islamic colleges of the Middle East and that all such inquiries were undertaken in carefully guarded private settings. Likewise, in China, there were no autonomous institutions of learning independent of the official bureaucracy; the ones that existed were completely at the mercy of the centralized state. Nor were philosophers given the liberty to define for themselves the realms of learning as occurred in the West."

The German-Syrian Muslim reformist Bassam Tibi writes in his book Islam Between Culture and Politics that "rational sciences were in medieval Islam considered to be 'foreign sciences' and at times heretical. At present, Islamic fundamentalists do not seem to know that rational sciences in Islam were based on what was termed ulum al-qudama (the sciences of the Ancients), that it, the Greeks."

Science was viewed as Islamic science, the study of the Koran, the hadith, Arab history etc. Tibi believes it is thus incorrect to call institutions like al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt, the highest institution of learning in Sunni Islam, a university: "Some Islamic historians wrongly translate the term madrasa as university. This is plainly incorrect: If we understand a university as universitas litterarum, or consider, without the bias of Eurocentrism, the cast of the universitas magistrorum of the thirteenth century in Paris, we are bound to recognise that the university as a seat for free and unrestrained enquiry based on reason, is a European innovation in the history of mankind."

Al-Azhar was created in the tenth century and is hailed as one of the oldest universities in the world. However, as late as the early twentieth century, the blind Egyptian author Taha Husayn complained about the total lack of critical thinking he encountered at the institution:

"The four years I spent [at al-Azhar, from 1902] seemed to me like forty, so utterly drawn out they were....It was life of unrelieved repetition, with never a new thing, from the time the study began until it was over. After the dawn prayer came the study of Tawhid, the doctrine of [Allah's] unity; then fiqh, or jurisprudence, after sunrise; then the study of Arabic grammar during the forenoon, following a dull meal; then more grammar in the wake of the noon prayer. After this came a grudging bit of leisure and then, again, another snatch of wearisome food until, the evening prayer performed, I proceeded to the logic class which some shaikh or other conducted. Throughout these studies it was all merely a case of hearing re-iterated words and traditional talk which aroused no chord in my heart, nor taste in my appetite. There was no food for one's intelligence, no new knowledge adding to one's store."

Taha Husayn was the kind of genuine intellectual who found absolutely no room for free inquiry at this leading Islamic madrasa. He enrolled at the new, secular University of Cairo, founded after Western models, in 1908, and continued his education at the Sorbonne in Paris. Although best know for his autobiography Al-Ayyam abroad, he created a huge controversy in Egypt by daring to suggest that some passages of the Koran should not be read literally, and for claiming that some pre-Islamic poetry had been forged by Muslims to give credibility to traditional Islamic history. For this he was accused of heresy, and had he lived in the aggressive Islamic atmosphere a couple of generations later, he might well have been killed.

Toby E. Huff warns that if Islam had taken over Europe, the later Western scientific achievements would have been impossible: "If Spain had persisted as an Islamic land into the later centuries - say, until the time of Napoleon - it would have retained all the ideological, legal, and institutional defects of Islamic civilization. A Spain dominated by Islamic law would have been unable to found new universities based on the European model of legally autonomous corporate governance, as corporations do not exist in Islamic law. Furthermore, the Islamic model of education rested on the absolute primacy of fiqh, of legal studies, and the standard of preserving the great traditions of the past. This was symbolically reflected in the ijaza, the personal authorization to transmit knowledge from the past given by a learned man, a tradition quite different from the West's group-administered certification (through examination) of demonstrated learning. In the actual event, the founding of Spanish universities in the thirteenth century, first in Palencia (1208-9), Valladolid, Salamanca (1227-8), and so on, occurred in long-established Christian areas, and the universities were modeled after the constitutions of Paris and Bologna."

Huff believes that the university represented a wider trend toward institutional innovation in Europe, which gradually led in the direction of representative parliaments: "The principle of treating collective actors as a single entity carried with it the principle of election by consent. If the corporation, the collective group of actors considered as a whole, is to be represented by a single voice, for example, in a court of law, then it must elect such a person."


Accordingly, "In this procedure we can see the beginnings of a formalized process of representative government. In its very nature, the legal idea of a corporation is a major institutional location of the principle of constitutional limitations and governance. As [Gaines] Post puts it, from this idea of legal representation there 'developed in the 13th century the idea that English shires and towns could be represented in Parliament; and indeed modern representation of communities is based on this principle.' Likewise, Joseph Strayer stresses the point: 'The idea of political representation is one of the great discoveries of medieval governments.' While the Greeks and Romans took steps in that direction, they lacked fundamental legal and philosophical presuppositions. 'In medieval Europe, on the other hand, representative assemblies appeared everywhere: in Italy, Spain, and southern France early in the thirteenth century; in England, northern France and Germany anywhere from fifty to one hundred years later.'"

The Syrian physician Ibn al-Nafis, who worked in hospitals on Damascus and Cairo in the thirteenth century, was a capable surgeon. However, "al-Nafis tells us that he avoided the practice of dissection because of the shari'a [the religious law] and his own 'compassion' for the human body. He also says that, 'we will rely on the forms of the internal parts [of the human body] on the discussion of our predecessors among those who practiced this art [of dissection], especially the excellent Galen, since his books are the best of the books on this topic which have reached us.' Ibn al-Nafis, it should be noted, was also a specialist in Islamic jurisprudence, so that his construal of the practice of dissection as un-Islamic carries special weight."

The Greek physician Galen worked in the second century A.D. and systematized medical knowledge in the Greco-Roman world. He lamented the fact that he couldn't perform dissection of human corpses, but this wasn't accepted during Roman times so he based his studies of human anatomy on dissections of animals such as dogs, apes and pigs. This is funny if you are familiar with the low status dogs, apes and pigs have in Islam, and know that subsequent medicine in the Muslim world was inspired by Galen. His errors thus went unchallenged in the Islamic world, but were eventually corrected in Christian Europe.

During the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the knowledge of medicine greatly improved in Europe, thanks in part to the spread of medical institutes at the universities where dissection was sometimes performed to train students. Dissections of pigs, which are anatomically similar to humans, were also performed. As Huff says:

"In short, by the thirteenth century there was no major ideological resistance to the performing of human dissections in Europe. At the time of Ibn al-Nafis, European anatomists were practicing dissections on the pig and also the human body. Consequently, they had a considerable stock of empirical knowledge about human anatomy that was not available in the Arab-Muslim world. Inspired by the pursuit of scientific knowledge, European physicians engaged in a variety of practices that would have been forbidden in a Muslim context. These included (1) the dissection of human bodies, (2) the dissection of a pig, (3) the performance of the operation in a public forum, and (4) the publication of richly detailed drawings of the human anatomy in all of its minute, and many would say, offensive detail. In contrast to the European practice, Muslims had a religiously conditioned aversion to pigs and their dissection. In addition, Middle Eastern medical education of the time was still based mainly on the memorization of authoritative texts."

It is true that individual Muslim physicians could make significant contributions in the field of medicine. Avicenna's writings were known and taught in Europe at this time. However, it is equally true that much further progress was blocked in the Middle East specifically due to Islamic religious resistance. The final breakthrough on the road to modern anatomy was made by the Brussels-born physician Vesalius, who studied at the University of Paris and lectured at several other European universities. His book On the Fabric of the Human Body from 1543 was made widely known in the West due to the introduction of Gutenberg's printing press a few generations earlier, an invention that was aggressively rejected in the Islamic world. According to Huff, "there was in Arabic-Islamic civilization a strong distrust of the common man," and efforts were made to prevent his gaining access to printed material.

In astronomy, the achievements of the Islamic world peaked with the Maragha observatory in Iran, founded in 1259 and known for its precise observations of the stars and the planets: "The fact that the observatory was founded under the law of waqf [religious endowment] would suggest that the institution had suitable legal protection and could be expected to enjoy a long life, indeed, perpetual existence. But such was not the case. By 1304-05 the observatory had ceased to function; it had enjoyed a lifetime of barely forty-five years, or, according to Aydin Sayili's most liberal estimate, fifty-five to sixty years. In the middle of the fourteenth century, a visitor to the site had only ruins to view."

There were other observatories founded in the Islamic world, both before and after, but none rivaled the achievements of the Maragha observatory, though the observations recorded at Samarqand in the fifteenth century are said to be more accurate. The calculations made by astronomers of the "Maragha school," for instance by mathematician Ibn al-Shatir from Damascus in the fourteenth century, are said to be superior to those of the traditional Ptolemaic model. That may well be true, but it is also true that further progress stagnated, and that the most important step, the shift to a heliocentric or sun-centered model of the solar system, was not made in the Islamic world. This was done by Nicolaus Copernicus in the sixteenth century. Copernicus certainly didn't invent the concept of heliocentrism, which had been suggested both in ancient Greece and in India, but he is usually credited with having made the first coherent scientific model of heliocentrism.

As Huff says, "In the end, the observatory as a scientific and cultural institution failed to take root in the Arabic-Islamic world." This was because "though astronomy was implicitly acknowledged to be a 'handmaiden of religion,' it was associated with astrology, and the latter's claim to predict the future ran directly counter to the teachings of Islam. That is, from a strictly religious point of view, only God knows the future, and those who claim such knowledge are usurpers of God's unique and inimitable qualities. For that reason, several other observatories were destroyed because of their alleged association with astrology."

Astronomy was thus distrusted by Muslims because of its links to astrology at the time. Astrology was blasphemy and an insult to Allah as only He knows the future. The Mongols liked astronomy for that very same reason: Its alleged potential to predict future events was deemed military useful. According to scholar Thomas T. Allsen, astronomers/astrologers were the constant companions of Mongol leaders: "What appealed to the Mongols about astronomers was their ability to predict heavenly portents. This is hardly surprising for adherents of the Tengri religion. After all, they had received a political mandate from Heaven, Tengri, to rule the world and were naturally intensely interested in further guidance."

Some Muslims have claimed that the scientific advances in the Islamic world were halted by the Mongol conquests. This is inaccurate for a number of reasons. First of all because the conquests didn't affect Egypt, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and they didn't make any more scientific progress than did the Islamic East. Second of all, science in the Islamic world had already stagnated in many fields before this. In astronomy, Muslim achievements peaked after the Mongol conquests, in Iran under Mongol rule and with Mongol encouragement. Hulegu Khan gave his blessing to build the Maragha observatory only a year after his troops had sacked Baghdad and ended the Abbasid Caliphate. His brother Kublai Khan constructed an observatory in China.

It is relevant here to mention that Copernicus, who achieved what the Maragha astronomers failed to do, was also a product of the European university system, having studied in Krakow and Bologna. Toby E. Huff again:

"As John Gascoigne has shown, 'Something like 87% of the European scientists born between 1450 and 1650 [who were] thought worthy of inclusion in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography were university educated.' More importantly, 'A large proportion of this group was not only university educated but held career posts at a university.' For the period 1450-1650 this was 45 percent, and for 1450-1550, it was 51 percent. If one speaks of particular scientists, then one must immediately acknowledge that Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Newton were all extraordinary products of the apparently procrustean and allegedly Scholastic universities of Europe. In short, sociological and historical accounts of the role of the university as an institutional locus for science and as an incubator of scientific thought and argument have been vastly understated."

This doesn't mean that there were no individual scientific achievements made in the Islamic world at this time. I have singled out Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham) for attention before. He was a pioneer in the scientific method, yet his groundbreaking book on optics was "virtually unknown in the Islamic world during the eleventh and twelfth centuries." It wasn't ignored completely. For instance, the Persian natural philosopher al-Farisi was inspired by it to do work concerning the refraction of light and the colors of the rainbow around the year 1300. However, the most important long-term impact Alhazen's work had in Europe. The fact that arguably the most brilliant scientist the Arab world has ever produced had a greater impact in Europe than he did in the Islamic world tells us something about Europe at the time, but above all it tells us a lot about the Islamic world.

Alhazen was born in Iraq and benefited from an environment where he had access to works by other cultures. Muslims had assimilated the mathematical traditions of India and ancient Greece, probably the most advanced mathematical cultures in Eurasia. These developments eventually stagnated, as did most other sciences in the Islamic world, but Persians and other Muslims were probably superior to the Chinese in this regard during the Middle Ages.

According to Huff, "Geometry as a systematic deductive system of proofs and demonstrations was virtually nonexistent in China, as was trigonometry." As such, "If we consider the main fields of scientific inquiry that have traditionally formed the core of modern science - namely, astronomy, physics, optics, and mathematics - it is evident that the Chinese lagged behind not only the West but also the Arabs from about the eleventh century. By the end of the fourteenth century in the areas of mathematics, astronomy, and optics, there was a considerable debit on the Chinese side, despite the fact that there had been many chances for the Chinese to benefit from Arab astronomers and to borrow or assimilate the Greek philosophical heritage through constant interchanges between the Arabs and the Chinese."

The Chinese had an established tradition of viewing non-Chinese as barbarians: "For this reason, the Chinese were exceedingly cautious and selective in their borrowings from other cultures. This was quite noticeable in the domain of science. As we have seen, even when major scientific improvements and innovations were passed on to the Chinese - whether via the Indians or the Arabs - these innovations were either put aside altogether or only adopted after the lapse of many centuries. This was the case with the appearance of the Indian zero in the eighth century and with regard to the Ptolemaic system as used by the Maragha observatory in the thirteenth century."

Although the Chinese were proud and reluctant to learn from other cultures in general, they may have had a particular dislike for Muslims, which didn't help Muslim astronomers who were employed in China.

As Thomas T. Allsen writes, "new technology spreads as 'a matter of economic calculus,' while alien science, always linked to world views, 'runs afoul' of the core cultural beliefs and norms of the receiving culture. This reluctance is more sharply manifested in China, perhaps because of the large number of Muslim administrators and tax collectors in Yuan [Mongol] service who became the visible instruments of the exploitation of the Chinese populace. The focal point of this resentment, Qubilai's financial adviser Ahmad (A-ha-ma), was considered an 'evil minister' (chien-ch'en) by the Confucians and thoroughly hated by the public. This translated into Chinese suspicion of everything Muslim and deep-seated anti-Islamic attitudes on the popular level. Such views, naturally, help to inhibit borrowing from West Asia because of the distasteful associations."

Still, China's main challenge was that scientists found little room for independent thinking in an autocratic system with a highly centralized bureaucracy: "The problem of Chinese science, however, was not fundamentally that it was technically flawed, but that Chinese authorities neither created nor tolerated independent institutions of higher learning within which disinterested scholars could pursue their insights. The extraordinarily rigid examination system, based on the memorization of a huge volume of Chinese classics and the mastery of classical Chinese calligraphy (to the exclusion of all scientific subjects except as noted earlier), remained intact from 1400 to 1905. It served to prevent intellectual innovation for hundreds of years."

Even more remarkable is the fact that "there was only one organizational unit of higher education in all of China (with some 120 million people) that had status enough to be (misleadingly) called a university. By way of contrast, Europe from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, with half the population of China, had at least eighty-nine universities, not to mention hundreds of colleges with more autonomy than existed anywhere in China."

There were great impediments to the pursuit of natural science. "None of this is to discount the amazing array of beginnings that historians of Chinese science and technology have found in a wide range of fields, including records of planting and harvesting, hydraulics, clock works, pharmacology and pharmacological taxonomy, alchemy, medical inquiries, very detailed observations of astronomical events, such as comets, eclipses, nova, and sunspots, and even rudiments of probabilistic thinking. But in the end, institutions matter, as many economists have reminded us. Without them, fertile seeds of intellectual brilliance fail to grow into hardy plants."

Galileo Galilei's encounter with the Inquisition in the seventeenth century is frequently cited as an example of the repression of science by Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. However, if Christianity had always been anti-science, the scientific revolution would never have taken place in Christian Europe. Moreover, the worst religious threat to early modern science in the West was actually in the thirteenth century, when bishop Stephen Tempier in 1277 condemned 219 suspect propositions at the University of Paris. This was during the time when Greek philosophy and natural studies were introduced into the newly founded universities. The ban was annulled in 1325, and the pursuit of natural inquiries grew stronger as a response to the challenge.

According to Huff, "the Galileo affair, coming nearly 350 years later, did not involve anything like the assault on the university that the 1277 condemnation did. While Galileo was put under house arrest and confined to his villa in Arceti, in point of fact the revolution went forward. It went forward in the sense that the agenda of scientific inquiry ensconced in the medieval university went forward; the Copernican thesis was examined in every possible way, inside universities and out; and print technology served to continue the flow of scientific information all over Europe. The church attempted to restrict scientific discourse to the issuance of merely probable and hypothetical conjectures in regard to the constitution of the universe, but its attempt was totally ineffectual as either a matter of practice or a matter of theology. Moreover, unlike the situation in China or in Islam, there was in effect no possible way in which a centralized authority, religious or otherwise, could stamp out either the new theoretical ideas of Copernicus or the religious, legal, and philosophical groundings of them that were embedded in the major institutions of Western civilization."

The situation was much worse in China. T'ai-tsu, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty (r. 1368-98), thought that the students at the imperial academy were too unruly and appointed his nephew as head of the institution. Later he issued a set of pronouncements:

"In the third of these proclamations (ca. 1386) there was a 'list of 'bad' metropolitan degree holders,' that is, chin-shih or 'doctorates,' along with the names of some students. 'He prescribed the death penalty for sixty-eight metropolitan degree holders and two students; penal servitude for seventy degree holders and twelve students.' The author of this account in the Cambridge History of China adds that these lists 'must have discouraged men of learning.' Appended to the edict was a further reprimand. The emperor 'would put to death any man of talent who refused to serve the government when summoned. As he put it, 'To the edges of the land, all are the king's subjects....Literati in the realm who do not serve the ruler are estranged from teaching [of Confucius]. To execute them and confiscate the property of their families is not excessive.' The trial and punishment of Galileo (confinement to his villa overlooking Florence) is nothing compared to this."

In short, the main reason why the West has enjoyed high levels of innovation is because we have enjoyed a comparatively greater degree of political liberty and free speech. There is no magic involved here. In contrast, China's authoritarian climate owes at least as much to the legacy of centuries of centralized bureaucracy as it does to a few generations of Communist rule.

According to Huff, "The main problem in China is the heavy-handed 'guidance' of science by political authorities. In the Muslim world of the early twenty-first century, however, we have seen that there is much ambivalence regarding science, unfettered discourse, and social criticism. Many Muslims still believe that modern science represents a foreign, Western intrusion into Islamic metaphysics. The struggle to 'Islamize' science and knowledge continues in many circles."

Although China may need to reform its political system in order to reach its full scientific potential, the situation in the Islamic world is worse. Chinese students perform well abroad. Whereas China is faced primarily with a political and structural challenge, Muslim countries are faced with a much deeper cultural and religious challenge. Simply put, Islam itself has been the greatest impediment to progress in the region during the past thousand years, and it is difficult to see how science can grow in Islamic countries until they cease being Islamic.

Fjordman is a noted Norwegian blogger who has written for many conservative web sites. He used to have his own Fjordman Blog in the past, but it is no longer active.

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