Islam is fighting a military and ideological battle that began some 300 years ago. The last decades of the 17th century mark the critical point of divergence of Western and Islamic civilizations, as one began its ascent and the other its decline. Central to this great shift in respective power was a pivotal military defeat and the Scientific Revolution. The implications of these events are still working themselves out in the realms of jihadi terrorism and propaganda about Islamic science, as Islam struggles to find a viable identity and role in the contemporary world.
In 1683 the Muslim Ottoman Empire besieged Vienna, in the very heartland of Europe. The Ottomans were a superpower that had long threatened to engulf the West. It had taken Constantinople, the ancient capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, in 1453, most of the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, and had been seeking to capture Vienna for centuries, launching an earlier siege in 1529, during the height of the chaos in Europe caused by the Reformation. The city was of immense strategic value because of its control of the Danube basin and the trade routes throughout southern and central Europe. It had to be seized if the Ottomans were to fulfil their divine mission, conquer Europe, and bring the entire continent under the flag of Islam. Eventually, the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Holy League marched out to face the invaders, and the two immense armies plunged into battle on the flanks of the Kahlenberg Mountain near the city. Amidst enormous carnage, the battle was won by the Christian forces, preserving Christendom, and signalling the slow but remorseless decline of the Ottoman Empire that culminated with its demise, along with the Caliphate, or spiritual leadership of Islam, in 1922.
Meanwhile, 1250 kilometres away at Cambridge, Isaac Newton had commenced work on what would become his Principia Mathematica, which appeared in 1687. There is no argument that this was one of the most important works in the history of science, and, indeed, human history as a whole. Certainly, it was the creation of an immense intelligence that has possibly never been excelled; as Alexander Pope said of his contemporary:
“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light”.
Along with pioneers like Galileo Galilei, William Harvey, Robert Boyle, and Francis Bacon, Newton established the principles of scientific method and penetrated through the misleading realm of everyday experience to identify and codify the underlying laws of nature and give them mathematical expression. Consequently, the Principia Mathematica and other work provided the theoretical basis for the Scientific Revolution and for the titanic technological and scientific advances that drove the Industrial Revolution, and the transformation of Western Civilization into a global power that would shape the modern world.
Muslims today react in different ways to these events. At the political level, Islamists maintain the rage at the demise of the Ottomans: less than a month after 9/11, Osama bin Laden declared that the “humiliation and disgrace” suffered by the Muslim world with the fall of the Empire, and particularly the demise of the Caliphate, had been avenged by the al Qaeda attacks; Hisb ut-Tahrir promotes the re-establishment of a global caliphate; and ISIS purports to have actually done this in Syria and Iraq, and intends soon to extend its rule to Libya and Afghanistan.
In the realm of science the reaction has been quite different. Apart from the paucity of scientific productivity in Islamic civilization, Islamists and Muslim propagandists face an intractable dilemma – their absolute commitment to the Koran as the uncreated Word of God and to a metaphysical system that is utterly incompatible with modern science. (Ironically, the Christian West, which Muslims tend to blame for all their woes, faced a similar dilemma over the role of the Bible and the reigning system of Christian metaphysics 300 years ago. Consequently, it underwent a traumatic transformation that lasted for centuries, eventually dismantling Christendom and enthroning modernity.)
In reaction to their perceived subordination to the West, Muslims have sought arbitrarily to appropriate key scientific discoveries as their own, and to this end they have fabricated an alternative history of science. This places crucial discoveries associated with the Scientific Revolution not in the 17th century in the hated West, where they actually happened, but rather hundreds of years earlier in the ‘Golden Age of Islam’, from which it is alleged the crucial principles of scientific inquiry and the resulting discoveries were derived. In carrying out this propaganda coup, they have been helped immensely by the petrodollar funding of innumerable scholarly centres, professorial positions, academic bodies, and research projects, specially commissioned books and articles, and documentaries, along with the necessary promotion and marketing.
As has been pointed out in previous Quadrant Online articles, this effort has been so successful that even someone as allegedly astute as Malcolm Turnbull has been taken in. He, of course, has the excuse of ignorance, naivety, opportunism and political correctness; academics, commentators, and media hacks however have no excuse – they make and acquiesce to these bogus claims for religious loyalty, propaganda purposes, career advancement, and the money.
At the core of this propaganda project are two fundamental conceits. Firstly, that the history of science can be seen as a steady progression of discoveries from ancient times until the present; and that, secondly, various works of Arabic or Muslim scholarship guided by the Koran and produced in the centuries prior to the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution either pre-empted or significantly shaped these later epochal events. These themes re-appear continuously in Muslim apologetics.
The fundamental error undermining this entire approach is the failure to recognize that the history of science has not involved a steady growth in knowledge and that the Scientific Revolution was, in fact, an unprecedented intellectual eruption on a scale not seen since the Axial Age. It involved a massive paradigm shift away from the Aristotelian metaphysics that had underpinned Western science for 1700 years and scientific activity in Muslim societies for 700 years, sweeping these aside into the dustbin of history. In its place it introduced a mechanical conception of the universe that viewed it entirely as matter continually in motion through time and space and that behaved in accordance to invariant laws that could be expressed and exploited in terms of sophisticated systems of mathematics especially devised for the purpose. It was, in fact, revolutionary on a scale that is difficult to comprehend now in its aftermath, devastating and utterly transforming the landscape of thought in those Western societies where it occurred.
In its most rudimentary form, the Muslim attempt to hijack and re-write the history of science insists that the scientific method can be reduced to simple empiricism and attention to the natural world. Islamists claim that their religion pioneered this outlook (as if the tremendous engineering feats that characterized the Roman Empire and much of the ancient world were achieved by unworldly mystics!). Consequently, the UK-based Muslim postmodernist, Ziauddin Sardar, claims that Muslims developed the foundations of modern science by following the Koranic injunction to observe and reflect upon natural phenomenon. Indeed, according to Sardar, “The scientific method, as it is understood today, was first developed by Muslim scientists”, as Nidhal Guessoum points out in Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science (2011). In Guessoum’s view, there are some 750 verses in the Koran that deal with natural phenomenon and therefore the study of nature by Muslims is “encouraged and highly recommended” by their Holy Scripture. Similarly, the leading Islamist ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, insisted that “Islam appointed [Muslims] as representatives of God and [therefore] made them responsible for learning all the sciences”, while Qutb’s ideological predecessor, Muhammad Iqbal, believed that the Koran provided an empirical methodology and epistemology that underpinned scientific inquiry.
A leading force in the production of this alternative history of science is the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC), an extremely well-resourced organisation set up in the UK in 1999, allegedly at the instigation of historians, scientists, engineers and social scientists motivated by philanthropic motives. According to its website,
it is dedicated to researching and popularising the history of pre-Renaissance civilisations, especially the Muslim civilisation, which have had an impact upon the scientific, technological and cultural heritage of our modern world [and it] is the world’s leading producer of educational material dedicated to the history of science within Muslim culture and civilisation.
It operates ‘Curriculum Enrichment for the Future’, an educational outreach organisation that seeks to shape school curricula in order to promote the view of Islam as a major force for good in the modern world while downplaying the role of the West. It emphasizes that its work
has received support from hundreds of academics, educators, diplomats, legislators and heads of state, as well as various private and government agencies from the United Kingdom and around the world
This includes Australia, where school curricula and the media are firmly in the hands of the Green-Left, which is extremely sympathetic to Islamism and its bitter critique of the West.
An example of the exaggerated claims made by FSTC is an article appearing on its Muslim Heritage website on “Ottoman Contributions to Science and Technology” by Salim Ayduz. This focuses only on two case studies, the foundation of the Istanbul Observatory and Muslim map-making in the 16th century, but it concludes breathlessly from these meagre examples that:
Ottoman contributions to Science and Technology during a six hundred year rule over a huge domain are beyond measure. … Ottoman scientific activities and related institutions … brought about the revival of culture, science, and learning in civilizations throughout the world.
Similarly, an FSTC conference on “Muslim Heritage in Our World” in 2010 was organised around the premise that India, Europe and China were scientifically dependent on Islam and that
the Islamic realms served as a crucible for scientific learning from the ancient Greek world in the West and from China, India and Iran, in the East. Western Europe in turn benefited from the transmission of Arabic science into Latin, just as Chinese culture was indebted to Arabic texts travelling eastwards.
Another article that cannot resist hyperbole concerns “Ibn Khaldun and the Rise and Fall of Empires” (published like most of the others in Saudi Aramco World).
According to the excited author, Caroline Stone, the 14th century scholar, ibn Khaldun, is
now viewed as a founder of modern historiography, sociology and economics [and] as the thinker that conceived and created a philosophy of history that was undoubtedly one of the greatest works ever created by a man of intelligence, so ground-breaking were his ideas, and so far ahead of his time, that his writings are taken as a lens through which to view not only his own time but the relations between Europe and the Muslim world in our own time as well.
A further example of this form of pseudo-academic hyperbole was the recent UNESCO conference on “The Islamic Golden Age of Science for Today’s Knowledge-based Society”, which explicitly tries to link 21st century Silicon Valley with 7th century Mecca. As the Muslim Heritage website enthuses:
From the 14th to 15th September 2015, UNESCO representatives, worldwide researchers, academics, science historians and political decision makers gathered in Paris to explore UNESCO’s International Year of Light by visiting the progression along with contributions of studies in light from the Islamic Golden Age and beyond.
The focus was on one scholar in particular, Ibn Al-Haytham (Alhazen), allegedly “the father of optics”. According to yet another wildly inflated evaluation, by the UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova,
Although al-Haytham is most renowned for his contributions to the principles of optics, he also made significant contributions to mathematics, astronomy, engineering, and also wrote on medicine and philosophy amongst others. Perhaps his most important contribution was in laying the foundations of the scientific method.
In other words, the basis of scientific method was established in 11th century Egypt, rather than in 17th century Britain and Western Europe!
Like all of this alternative history, the work of the FSTC is unrelentingly hyperbolic in its claims for Islam. A good example of this is the 2012 BBC Four documentary, The Dark Ages: An Age of Light – The Wonder of Islam. This argues that the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire are mistakenly seen as a descent into barbarism, when civilisation stopped. In fact, it was really an ‘Age of Light’ because it saw the emergence of Islamic civilization, which spread from the Near East across North Africa and into Europe, bringing its unique artistic style, its mosques, new ideas, and its scientific achievements.
Possibly the most prominent academic involved in this alternative history project is Professor Jim Al-Khalili, a theoretical physicist and professor at the University of Surrey, and also a long-time trustee and supporter of the FSTC. Unsurprisingly, he is recognized primarily for his achievements in ‘science communication’. He is the author of The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance (2010, also published as Pathfinders: The Golden Age Of Arabic Science). As the title makes clear, the author and publisher feel no sense of restraint over the exaggerated claims that can be made about the contribution of Arab science to the trajectory of Western history.
Al-Khalili presented these claims again in the 2010 BBC Four 3-part series, Science and Islam, about the alleged “leap in scientific knowledge that took place in the Islamic world between the 8th and 14th centuries” and how this shaped all further developments in science. Amongst many other promotional activities, he also presented the 2013 Holyoake Lecture on the “Forgotten Legacy of Arabic Science”, which once more pressed the case for Arab priority in the history of science.
Much of this alternative history involves the notion that sacred texts like the Koran express a scientific foreknowledge that has later been revealed to be true. An excellent example of this is the claim by Muslim scholars that the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe is described in the Koran, including in the following verse (21:30):
Have not those who disbelieve known that the heavens and the earth were joined together as one united piece, then We parted them? And We have made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?
Another example concerns the notion of the multiverse (the highly controversial hypothesis that modern physics entails the existence of multiple parallel universes) and is given by Adi Setia in a 2004 Islam & Science article. According to this, there are seven verses in the Koran describing seven heavens, which refer to the multiverse, while a 12th century Muslim scholar, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi “explored the notion of the existence of a multiverse in the context of his commentary” on the Koranic verse, “All praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds”. He claims that this refers to “multiple worlds within this single universe or cosmos, or to many other universes or a multiverse beyond this known universe”. Such exegesis is considered to prove that the Koran established the existence of the multiverse nearly 1400 years before modern theoretical physics postulated its existence.
These assertions are examples of Bucailleism. This involves the formal theological claim that the Koran is of divine origin, that it contains scientifically correct facts, that there is therefore no contradiction between any scientific discoveries and the Koran (whereas there are many discrepancies in the Bible), and that the Koran foretold many modern scientific discoveries. It was propounded in The Bible, The Qur’an and Science (1976) by Maurice Bucaille, an Egyptologist and (unsurprisingly) one-time family physician to King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. In the view of Sardar (voted one of Britain’s leading public intellectuals in 2002), “Bucaille’s assertions are not wild; he is quite objective about his undertaking and remains more or less within the boundaries of common sense”.
Although it slips frequently into absurdity there is a determined and coordinated international effort by Muslims to enshrine an alternative history of science that exalts the role of the Arabs and other Muslim scholars while downplaying and marginalizing the role of the Western scientists, philosophers and intellectuals whose titanic efforts produced the Scientific Revolution and transformed the world.
This bogus counter-narrative is widely accepted as valid in Muslim societies, where there are very high levels of resentment at the West and a strong desire to assert the superiority of Islam against all other faiths in all areas of life. It has also been able to gain considerable traction in the West because of the control exercised over the universities, schools and the media by the Green-Left, and because of the opportunistic and politically correct actions and utterances of our political leadership, exemplified by Turnbull, who have proven unable or unwilling to counter the Green-Left-Islamist united front or act (or empower others to act) as effective champions of Western Civilization and liberal democracy.