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July 07th 2010 print

Bill Muehlenberg

Islam and science

Many scholars argue that Islam in fact impeded the development of modern science, and that it was essentially Christianity which helped to give rise to it.

It is often claimed by Islamophiles that the Muslim world contributed greatly to science and learning. As but one recent – and rather silly – example, US President Obama has instructed the head of NASA to reach out to Muslims, and rehearse their supposed achievements.

NASA chief Charles Bolden said that the "foremost" task President Obama has given him is "to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with predominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering."

What is one to make of such claims? The historical record shows that there is a small bit of truth to all this, but not much. Indeed, many scholars argue that Islam in fact impeded the development of modern science, and that it was essentially Christianity which helped to give rise to it.

Much has been written on this topic. Here I simply seek to provide a brief and sketchy overview. For a much more detailed examination, one should consult works such as Toby Huff’s The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West (Cambridge University Press, 2003). In that volume Huff “examines the long-standing question of why modern science arose only in the West and not in the civilizations of Islam and China”.

Historian Rodney Stark has also addressed this issue. In his important 2003 volume, For the Glory of God, Stark notes that Islam certainly did seek to pass on earlier Greek learning. Indeed, classical Greek manuscripts did reach Christian Europe through Islam.

But, “it is also true that possession of all of this ‘enlightenment’ did not prompt much intellectual progress within Islam, let alone eventuate in Islamic science. Instead, as the devout Muslim historian Caesar E. Farah explained: …‘[Muslim philosophy chose to] enlarge Aristotle rather than to innovate. It chose the course of eclecticism, seeking to assimilate rather than to generate, with a conscious striving to adapt the results of Greek thinking to Muslim philosophical conceptions’.”

Stark explains that in Islam, Allah is capricious, doing whatever he pleases. “Consequently, there soon arose a major theological bloc within Islam that condemned all efforts to formulate natural laws as blasphemy insofar as they denied Allah’s freedom to act.”

This is in contrast to the Christian concept of God. For example, Descartes “justified his search for natural ‘laws’ on grounds that such laws must exist because God is perfect and therefore ‘acts in a manner as constant and immutable as possible,’ except for the rare occurrence of miracles.”

As Stanley Jaki wrote, the “Muslim notion of the Creator was not adequately rational to inspire an effective distaste for various types of pantheistic, cyclic, animistic, and magical world pictures which freely made their way into the Rasa’il [encyclopaedia of knowledge].”

The result, says Stark, “was to freeze Islamic learning and stifle all possibility of the rise of Islamic science, and for the same reasons that Greek learning stagnated of itself: fundamental assumptions antithetical to science.” He continues, “As a result of all this, Islamic scholars achieved significant progress only in terms of specific knowledge, such as certain aspects of astronomy and medicine, that did not necessitate any general theoretical basis. And, as time passed, even this sort of progress ceased.”

Robert Spencer concurs, “The main coup de grace to Islamic scientific and philosophical inquiry may have come from the Qur’an itself. The holy book of Islam portrays Allah as absolutely sovereign and bound by nothing. This sovereignty was so absolute that it precluded a key assumption that helped foster the development of science in Europe. Jews and Christians believe that God is good, and that His goodness is consistent. Therefore, He created the universe according to rational laws that can be discovered, making scientific investigation worthwhile.”

As Ibn Warraq states, “Arabs did not play a great part in the original development of Islamic science.” He quotes Ibn Khaldun: “It is strange that most of the learned among the Muslims who have excelled in the religious or intellectual sciences are non-Arabs with rare exceptions; and even those savants who claimed Arabian descent spoke a foreign language, grew up in foreign lands, and studied under foreign masters.”

Indeed, not only on the scientific front, but on the broader cultural front, a lot of hype about Islam’s Golden Age needs to be carefully reconsidered. As Spencer argues, “Islam was not the foundation of much significant cultural or scientific development at all. It is undeniably that there was a great cultural and scientific flowering in the Islamic world in the Middle Ages, but there is no indication that any of this flowering actually came as a result of Islam itself. In fact, there is considerable evidence that it did not come from Islam, but from the non-Muslims who served their Muslim masters in various capacities.”

Consider the Muslim translation of Greeks scientific works. Says Warraq, “the initial impulse for the translations was practical – the need for medical and astronomical knowledge.” It was not a result of a general openness to learning or philosophy. And “most of the translators were Christians”.

Spencer offers a number of examples. Consider the architectural design of mosques. These were “copies from the shape and structure of Byzantine churches”. Indeed, the seventh-century Dome of the Rock was copied from Byzantine models and even built by Byzantine craftsmen.

Consider more examples: “The first Arabic-language medical treatise was written by a Christian priest and translated into Arabic by a Jewish doctor in 683. The first hospital in Baghdad during the heyday of the Abbasid caliphate was built by a Nestorian Christian.”

Many of the great cultural and scientific achievements were in fact achieved by non-Muslims. Many other examples can be produced here. The truth is, Islam is a worldview which is hostile to learning, philosophy and any thinking not directly involving the Koran.

As Serge Trifkovic summarises, “Whatever flourished, it was not by reason of Islam, it was in spite of Islam. In Islam’s ‘golden age,’ there was a lot of speculation and very little application; and for almost a thousand years, even speculation has stopped. The periods of civilization under Islam, however brief, were predicated on the readiness of the conquerors to borrow from earlier cultures, to compile, translate, learn, and absorb. Islam per se never encouraged science, meaning ‘disinterested inquiry,’ because the only knowledge it accepts is religious knowledge.”

As Spencer says, since the Koran is seen as a perfect book, and Islamic society seen as the perfect civilisation, most “Muslims didn’t think they needed knowledge that came from any other source – certainly not from infidels.” Real advances made by Muslims have often been those who rebelled against the straightjacket of Islamic fundamentalism.

One wonders if NASA will be sending this message out as it seeks to reach Muslims.