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The Goat That Ate Islamic Science


Austin Dacey

May 12, 2010

The Ayatollah Khomeini once remarked that there are no jokes in Islam. If that is true, it is not for want of material. My latest favorite, related to me by Ibn Warraq, has to do with the rather unfunny hadith—one of the purported sayings and deeds of the Prophet and his companions—that requires death by stoning for adulterers. Once during a debate in London, Warraq made good on his entire career as the world’s leading apostate by coming up with the one-liner that he didn’t want to live in a society in which one gets stoned for committing adultery, but rather in a society in which one gets stoned and then commits adultery. But that was not the joke we were talking about.

It seems that the stone-the-adulterers commandment has long been the subject of theological controversy because although mandated by traditional religious law, or shari’a, it does not appear in the Quran. Instead, the Quran mentions the much less severe punishments of flogging or perhaps confinement. Some fornicators actually get into such things, maybe even in combination. Presumably a death sentence would have been important enough to merit inclusion in the revelation. Why didn’t Allah mention it before? According to another hadith, He did. Muhammad had written down the revealed verse on a piece of paper and placed it under his bed for safekeeping. One day while Muhammad had taken ill and the household was preoccupied with nursing him, a goat wandered in and ate it.

Islamic scholars took from this story not the lesson that I find obvious—that the goat was a second Messenger of Allah, who wanted to show Muhammad exactly what he could do with his bonkers idea of stoning adulterers. Instead, they used it to argue that were it not for the goat, the Quran would have (therefore should have?) included the missing verse and that this resolves the apparent doctrinal inconsistency—a hermeneutics of animal husbandry.

I’m sorry. This comic tale doesn’t really have a punch line. But it does reveal something about the nature of knowledge and epistemic authority in Islam, and this may go a long way toward explaining why Arab-Islamic societies never produced a scientific revolution while European societies did.

The Religion of He-Said, He-Said

A major preoccupation of Islamic scholars is verifying the “genuineness” of various hadith. Their preferred method is to trace the transmission from one source of these stories to the next, as in  

Abu al-Ayman narrated to us, saying: “Shu’yab narrated, saying: ‘Abu al-Zynad told us that Abd al-Rahman ibn Hurmuz al-A’raj . . . narrated to him that he heard from Abu Hurayrah who heard the Prophet saying...’1

A text is considered trustworthy when one can establish an unbroken chain of personal testimonies leading back to a person who had direct contact with the Prophet. Islam is a religion of he-said, she-said—minus most of what she said, of course. (In the case of the goat-ate-my-surah story, however, the original source was said to be a woman, or rather a girl: Aisha, Muhammad’s child wife.)

The chain-link epistemology of hadith was mirrored by the structure of legal scholarship. Instruction took place through individualized apprenticeships rather than institutionalized degree programs. Intellectual and professional attainment came in the form of a certificate passing on the authorization to teach a particular subject, which would be issued by a particular teacher to a pupil who had mastered the subject to that teacher’s satisfaction.

Historian of science Toby Huff argues that this diffuse organization of knowledge hindered the development of science, which relies on peer criticism by appeal to objective standards held in common across a discipline.

It is due to this personalistic and particularistic factor that one finds literally hundreds of schools of law over the centuries, each founded by a faqih who, through the power of his intellect and the magic of his personality, established his own school of law capable of issuing its own rulings (fatwas), unconstrained by a body of precedent and universal legal principles. Thus, law, jurisprudence, as the paradigmatic body of knowledge in Islamic civilization, established a model of inquiry antithetical to that required of modern science, that is, a system based on personal authority rather than collective or impersonal collegial standards.2

The study of the natural philosophy and proto-science of the Greco-Roman world, which had been collected and translated by Arabic-language thinkers, took place under an additional burden. It was not permitted in the colleges, or madrasas, which were primarily devoted to the study of Islamic law. Instead, this heterdox knowledge had to be cultivated by individual scholars acting in a private capacity.

In Europe, by contrast, the legal innovations in the eleventh and twelfth centuries made possible the creation of legally autonomous corporate entities—including universities and, later, scientific associations—in which groups of thinkers could coalesce around shared projects and shared standards in relative freedom from Church and state power.

The Trouble with Half-Totalitarianism

The above history should serve as a corrective to some of our own received stories. One story says the West has Arabic-Islamic societies to thank for “passing the torch” of classical civilization. What the popular wisdom elides is that this learning typically survived not because of but in spite of the nature of Islam. Another story says that intellectual development under Islam was stunted because Islam is a totalitarian system. This is also half true. Islam was half totalitarian, so to speak. It was doctrinally totalitarian, in that matters of truth and justice were completely determined by religious tradition, hence the suppression of subversive thought in the madrasa system. Yet socially, Islamic learning was highly individualistic by comparison with elaborately institutionalized European learning.

Even the best Arabic-Islamic thinkers suffered for want of organized skepticism—the powerful effects of iterated peer-review feedback. Personal testimony is unreliable. Memory fails. Our pet ideas can get eaten by life’s goats. The more watchful eyes there are, the better the chances that someone will catch the next one that slips into the tent looking for dinner.


[1] This comes from the hadith collection Sahih Al-Bukhari, book 11, no. 876.

[2] Toby E. Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West, 2nd ed., (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 228.

Austin Dacey

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Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.