Science in Islam

There’s a book review in the Times Literary Supplement of a book called Science and Islam by Muzaffar Iqbal. The review itself is really long and interesting, so here I am copying and pasting all kinds of little snippets.

In a review (January 19) of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, the Nobel Prizewinning physicist Steven Weinberg denied that there had been any developments in Islamic science after the death of the scholar and mystic al-Ghazali in 1111. In response, James Ragep, a historian of science, adduced, in rather general terms, all sorts of advances in Islamic science that had occurred after al-Ghazali’s death. Weinberg responded by denying or diminishing some of Ragep’s examples, such as the discovery of the pulmonary circulation of the blood, or a pre-Copernican presentation of a heliocentric system by Muslims.

Then Weinberg, apparently possessor of a mighty ego that can’t stand contradiction,

Weinberg, having reiterated that Islamic science never achieved much of importance after the early twelfth century, ended by quoting a 2002 survey by Nature which “identified just three areas of science in which Islamic countries excel: desalination, falconry and camel reproduction”.

Seems like a childish dig.

Ever since the nineteenth century there have been European thinkers, such as Ernest Renan, who have argued that the scientific outlook and Islam are incompatible; that the explosion of scientific translation and discovery was largely the achievement of non-Arabs; and that an increasingly strict and ossified Islam curtailed further scientific and speculative thought. Historians have wondered why the scientific movement in Islamic lands from the eighth to the eleventh centuries did not lead on to a scientific and an industrial revolution. Some Muslims might choose to detect an anti-Islamic agenda among those historians.

Well, yeah. This is a good time to add that there are plenty of thinkers who also view scientific outlook and any religion as incompatible. Many are the Americans who think that Galileo was a Atheist who was at violent odds with the Roman Catholic church, when in reality he was a devout Catholic his whole life, and the Church sponsored, well, basically, all scientific inquiry for a thousand years.

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.

One of the targets [of Muzaffar Iqbal’s new book] is the notion that Islamic science was little more than a reheated version of ancient Greek science: “many histories of science tend to regard the eight hundred years of scientific activity in the Muslim world as being no more than some kind of depot where Greek science was parked and from where it was retrieved by Europe in later centuries”.

He 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 darnit, he’s gone and muddied the waters with a some real quackery:

But, while he has some good sources to support the early development of what can be seen as an Islamic science, Iqbal is unwise to rely so heavily on the alleged writings of Jabir ibn Hayyan (whose notional dates are c721–815).

People who are only aware of Jabir (or Geber as he was known in the medieval West) as the name of an early scientist, may not be aware of what richly bizarre treasures are to be found in his strangely diverse writings: sperm is a crucial ingredient in the elixir of life; bird sperm is needed for producing a man with wings; the effigy of a Chinaman in bed will keep one awake at night; a picture of a man killing snakes done in magical ink will actually kill snakes; there is a fish called “the doctor of the sea” that carries a stone in its head that has the power to cure all ills; putrefied hair generates serpents; demons can be usefully trapped in statues.

Interestingly, I had an Arabic teacher that told me about at least one of these things in all seriousness. As for the ‘man with wings’ thing, I think I read a James Patterson book like that, and it was a best-seller in America a few years ago. Fiction, though.

Mr Iqbal also ignores the evidence that Jabir/Geber couldn’t have been one person and

In general, Iqbal elides the pervasiveness of occult thinking in Islamic science.

I’m no historian, but I bet there’s a lot of occult thinking in European science of the same time period.

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.

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.

Furthermore, it is perfectly clear that important advances in science were made after the twelfth century. For example, Ibn al-Shatir (d 1375) improved on the Ptolemaic model of the solar system by removing its eccentrics and equants, and his model for the rotation of the Sun anticipated that of Copernicus.

Hmm, so why does Copernicus get the credit? This is one of those things that continues to confuse me.

In most other respects there was no conflict between science and Islam in the pre-modern period, and Iqbal shows this.

Reminder: there’s a whole lot more content to this article than what I’m copying and pasting here.

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Filed under arab, arabian, arabist, books, Islamic relations

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