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Islam's long siesta


The perception of Islamic science, perhaps properly called natural philosophy, has been shaped by Bernard Lewis and his strong programme of senescence instead of renaissance. The development of scientific knowledge follows a pre-ordained path to scientific revolution and those cultures that failed to ignite need to be explained. Is not exceptionalism the oddity? A review in the Times Literary Supplement adds to our understanding:

After all, the scientific and industrial revolutions did not occur anywhere in the world except in Europe, and therefore one needs to explain the peculiarity of European history, rather than adduce some kind of Islamic brake or blinker.

We know that Islamic philosophers acted as a conduit for preserving part of antiquity's heritage and transmitting mathematics and other forms of ideas from India and the Orient to Europe. Some of this work was achieved by non-Islamic philosophers working within the Caliphate or Moorish kingdoms. There is evidence of scientific innovation up to the late Middle Ages and one can see equivalents to the natural theology; one of the drivers of the Scientific Revolution in Europe:

He [Muzaffar Iqbal] points out that the Arab scientific movement in the eighth century pre-existed the translation movement of the ninth and tenth centuries. He draws attention to a curious genre of literature that developed later, called shukuk, which was devoted to casting doubt on the findings of the Greeks, and he has no difficulty in adducing instances of Muslim scientists improving on, empirically testing or refuting Greek ideas.

But Iqbal is successful in arguing that the “Quran itself lays out a well-defined and comprehensive concept of the natural world, and this played a foundational role in the making of the scientific tradition in Islamic civilization”. Faith impelled rather than impeded the Islamic scientist. The Koran commands man to study Allah’s creation. The eleventh-century cosmologist al-Biruni wrote: “Sight was made the medium so that [man] traces among the living things the signs and wisdom, and turns from the created things to the Creator”. At a more practical level, astronomy and mathematics were studied and further developed to assist in such matters as the orientation of mosques, the determination of prayer times and the division of inheritances according to Islamic law.

Islamic science appears to have a developed a heliocentric system before Copernicus and continued its mathematical traditions up till the fifteenth century. We should debate the causes of the decline in these traditions during the Middle Ages and their replacement by religious traditions and debates. Robert Irwin, the author of the review and Middle East editor of the Times Literary Supplement provides his own big picture around complacent empires, education and a lack of resources.

Only part of this rings true.

I would suggest that the spread of the madrasa, or religious teaching college, throughout the Middle East in the central and late Middle Ages led to a certain narrowing of intellectual horizons. While scientists continued to do research and publish, they do not seem to have founded scientific societies of the sort that proliferated in Western Europe in the seventeenth century.

The Ottoman Empire, as a strong state, did not allow the flourishing of a civil society as we see in Europe during the Reformation and the Wars of Religion. Scientific societies could publish journals off printing presses and contribute to an increasingly literate population, supplemented by the Republic of Letters. There are no equivalents in the Middle East, as permanent institutions of polymaths would be viewed as dangerous innovators; perhaps similar to the attitude that Oxford took to Locke. Through comparison, we can understand some of the general causes of Islam's path, but greater detail is required to comprehend whether we see a continuation of a long-term approach to knowledge in current Middle Eastern attitudes to science. Perhaps we over-emphasise religious factors at the expense of poor education, parasitical elites and populations raised on Nasserite nigtmares rather than capitalist dreams.

Posted by Philip Chaston on January 28, 2008 at 11:04 PM | Permalink

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