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Science Allah Carte


Lewis Jones

Skeptical Briefs Volume 12.1, March 2000

Muslim science? On the face of it, it seems as incongruous as Christian physics or Jewish oceanography. But can Islam plead a special case? A popular element along these lines has always been Islam’s historical track record. When Ziauddin Sardar published his thoughts on the subject in New Scientist almost a quarter of a century ago, he titled his article, not “Can science come to Islam?” but “Can science come back to Islam?”

In the words of F.R. Rosenthal (The Classical Heritage of Islam): “Islamic rational scholarship, which we have mainly in mind when we speak of the greatness of Muslim civilization, depends in its entirety on classical antiquity . . . Islamic civilization as we know it would simply not have existed without the Greek heritage.”

Ibn Warraq, author of Why I Am Not a Muslim, points out: “Islamic science was founded on the works of the ancient Greeks, and the Muslims are important as the transmitters of Greek (and Hindu) learning that may well have been lost otherwise” (Aristotle, Plato, Galen, Hippocrates, Archimedes, Euclid, Ptolemy). And even so, “most of the translators were Christian.”

Warraq writes: “There is a persistent myth that Islam encouraged science. Adherents of this myth quote the Koran and hadith [traditional sayings of Muhammad] to prove their point . . . ‘Seek knowledge, in China if necessary'; ‘The search after knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim.’ This is nonsense, because the knowledge advocated in the previous quotes is religious knowledge. Orthodoxy has always been suspicious of ‘knowledge for its own sake,’ and unfettered inquiry is deemed dangerous to the faith. . . . All sciences are blameworthy that are useless for acting rightly toward God.”

“Those who kill do not think they are committing any crime,” said Girija Shankar Jaiswal (a lawyer who argues cases for victimized women). “They think they are becoming martyrs. They do not mind going to jail.”

Al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham was one of the greatest scientists of medieval Islam, and his “Optics” strongly influenced Kepler. The French philologist Ernest Renan wrote: “A disciple of Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher, relates that he was in Baghdad on business, when the library of a certain philosopher (who died in 1214) was burned there. The preacher, who conducted the execution of the sentence, threw into the flames, with his own hands, an astronomical work of Ibn al-Haitham, after he had pointed to a delineation therein given of the sphere of the earth, as an unhappy symbol of impious Atheism.”

One is reminded of the nineteenth century English politician John Morley, discussing the life of Voltaire: “Where it is a duty to worship the sun, it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat.”

In the twelfth century Averroes studied medicine and philosophy, and his work on Aristotle was responsible for the development of the inductive, empirical sciences. His reward was to be tried as a heretic, condemned, and exiled. Yet his name is often put forward as being at the forefront of the Islamic history of science.

Renan begged to differ: “To give Islam the credit of Averroes and so many other illustrious thinkers, who passed half their life in prison, in forced hiding, in disgrace, whose books were burned and whose writings almost suppressed by theological authority, are as if one were to ascribe to the Inquisition the discoveries of Galileo, and a whole scientific development which it was not able to prevent.”

There is also a current line of thought that assumes Islamic science has been "hijacked” by fundamentalists, and that all ills can be conveniently attributed to them. But shifting the burden of anti-science to an isolated hard-core fundamentalist group evades the central issue. Taslima Nasreen had a government warrant issued for her arrest in Bangladesh (for “outraging religious feelings”), and has some experience of official Muslim displeasure. “I don’t find any difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalists,” she says. “. . . I need to say that, because some liberals always defend Islam and blame fundamentalists for creating problems.”

In New Scientist (15 December 2001), Ziauddin Sardar reported: “One particular study, sponsored by the International Federation of Institutes of Advanced Studies (IFIAS) in Stockholm brought together Muslim scientists and scholars worldwide in seminars held between 1980 and 1983. The IFIAS study, published as The Touch of Midas, concluded that the issue of science and values in Islam must be treated within a framework of concepts that shape the goals of a Muslim society.”

Sardar also reports that the early 1990s brought a shift into obscurantism by the defenders of Muslim science: “it began to be argued that all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, could be found in the Koran. This thesis received a tremendous boost from the well-funded Saudi project, Scientific Miracles in the Qur'an (Koran). The project spanned both empirical work, involving comparisons of those verses of the Koran that deal with astronomy and embryology with the latest discoveries, and popularizations through conferences and seminars. Relativity, quantum mechanics, big bang theory, embryology-practically everything was ‘discovered’ in the Koran.”

In summary: “science becomes not a problem-solving enterprise or objective enquiry, but a mystical quest to understand the Absolute. Conjecture and hypothesis have no real place; all enquiry must be subordinate to the mystical experience.”

Nor are there any visible prospects that there will even be open debate in print on the subject. It is a numbing thought that there does not exist a single secular Arabic periodical. In any case, debates that revolve around the concept of heresy are unlikely to lead anywhere worth reaching.

“The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas-uncertainty, progress, change-into crimes.” Those are the words of Salman Rushdie in his Herbert Reade Memorial lecture in February of 1990, while in hiding from a fatwa for blasphemy.

Lewis Jones

Lewis Jones is a science writer in the U.K.