Western vs. Islamic Science and Religion


By Fjordman


I've read quite a few books on the history of science. One of them is The Beginnings of Western Science by David C. Lindberg, who has also written the book Theories of vision – From al-Kindi to Kepler, which I will quote more extensively from later this fall when publishing a multipart essay on the history of optics. Lindberg is a good scholar and well worth reading, but has a few minor flaws.


Chapter eight in the second edition of his book about the history of science is titled "Islamic science." Mr. Lindberg is not alone in employing this term, but I am not personally in favor of it. Nobody talks about "Buddhist science" or "Christian science," so I so no reason why we should use the term "Islamic science," either. It is misleading, since whatever existed of science in countries under Islamic rule relied heavily on contributions of non-Muslims and pre-Islamic knowledge. Some use the term "Arab science" instead, but this is hardly much better, since among those who were at least nominally Muslims, a disproportionate amount were Persians, not Arabs. Which term should we use, then? "Middle Eastern science" could be one possibility, as it puts emphasis on the region but not on the religion.


I don't think David C. Lindberg provides a full explanation of why the scientific tradition in the Islamic world stagnated, despite some promising beginnings. Those who want a better understanding of this can check out The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West by Toby E. Huff. This can be supplemented with the work of Edward Grant, for instance chapter eight "Relations between science and religion" in Science and Religion, 400 B.C. to A.D. 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus. I will quote this book by Grant, and to a lesser extent Huff's book, extensively in this essay, and will include page references to each quote so that others can use the material if they want to.


By the end of eleventh century, Western Europeans were aware that both Muslims and Byzantines had access to philosophical and scientific texts that they did not have. After the capture of Toledo, Spain and Sicily from the Muslims in 1085 and 1091, respectively, a number of scholars translated Greek and Arabic texts, but tended to prefer the Greek ones because Greek was a related Indo-European language, which Arabic was not. A large number of the works which existed in Arabic were originally translations from Greek themselves, and it would obviously make more sense to copy directly from the Greek in Constantinople since a more precise rendering could be made, with fewer misinterpretations than from Arabic. The result was a major movement of translations from the twelfth century until the second half of the thirteenth century.


Many works in optics, astronomy, medicine and mathematics were translated, but it was Aristotle's work on natural philosophy that had the greatest impact. The two greatest translators from Greek to Latin were James of Venice (d. after AD 1147), the first major translator of Aristotle's works from Greek to Latin, and the Flemish scholar William of Moerbeke (c. AD 1215-c. 1286), who was the last. According to Edward Grant, page 166:



"William of Moerbeke translated at least forty-eight treatises, including seven on mathematics and mechanics by Archimedes, translated for the first time into Latin (Grant 1974, 39-41; Minio-Paluello 1974, 436-438). His Aristotelian translations are truly impressive. He was the first to translate Aristotle's biological works from Greek into Latin. In translating the rest of Aristotle's natural philosophy, Moerbeke found it useful to revise, expand, and even complete some earlier translations, including revisions of at least three treatises previously translated by James of Venice. In addition, Moerbeke translated Greek commentaries on Aristotle's works from late antiquity. Thus, he translated John Philoponus' Commentary on the Soul, and Simplicius' Commentary on the Heavens. One of the earliest beneficiaries of Moerbeke's translations was Thomas Aquinas."



Grant continues on page 167:



"With Moerbeke's monumental contributions, all of Aristotle's natural philosophy was available by the last quarter of the thirteenth century in translations from Greek and Arabic. Although many scientific works were translated from Arabic to Latin in the first half of the twelfth century by such translators as Plato of Tivoli, Adelard of Bath, Robert of Chester, Hermann of Carinthia, Dominicus Gundissalinus, Peter Alfonso, John of Seville, and others, the earliest translations of Aristotle's works on natural philosophy appear to have occurred in Spain in the latter half of the twelfth century. By far the most prominent translator of Aristotle's works on natural philosophy was Gerard of Cremona (c. A.D. 1114-1187), the most prolific translator from Arabic to Latin of works on science, medicine, and natural philosophy."



Gerard of Cremona and those associated with him translated dozens of works from Arabic to Latin, among them probably Alhazen's book on Optics, which could not have been translated from Greek since it did not exist in Greek. It is thus true that there were translations from Arabic and that some of these did have some impact in Europe. It would be historically inaccurate to claim otherwise. But although this translation movement was significant, we should focus at least as much on how these different civilisations used this information.


In this case, we are dealing with an example where three different civilisations, the Islamic world, the Christian East (the Byzantine Empire) and the Christian West had access to much of the same material, yet where the end results were quite different. I have read a lot about the history of mechanical clocks and eyeglasses, both of which were invented in Europe in the second half of the thirteenth century AD. These inventions had no counterparts in any other civilisation and were important for later scientific and technological advances, which often benefited from more accurate timekeeping. The creation of microscopes and telescopes was to some degree an extension of the invention of eyeglasses and the use of glass lenses.


I cannot point out any significant piece of information that Europeans had access to at this time which Muslims didn't also have access to. If anything, Middle Easterners had more knowledge at their disposal since they had regular contacts with the major Asian civilisations and could supplement Greek natural philosophy with Indian and Chinese inventions. Europeans were prevented from having extensive direct contacts with these civilisations because they were geographically isolated from them by a large bloc of hostile Muslims. The only possible conclusion why Europeans invented mechanical clocks is that they were more efficient and creative than Muslims in using the body of information they had at their disposal. Muslims could have done the same, but they didn't. They failed, pure and simple.


The case of the Byzantine Empire is even more puzzling, as Byzantine scholars appear not to have taken advantage of the readily available treasure house of science and natural philosophy in their native Greek language. The Byzantine Empire was essentially a theocracy as the Emperor was regarded as the head of both church and state. According to Edward Grant in Science and Religion, page 228:



"[U]ntil the end of the sixth century, important contributions to natural philosophy were made in the Byzantine Empire by a number of commentators on the works of Aristotle, such as Alexander of Aphrodisias (fl. 2nd-3rd century A.D.), Themistius (c. A.D. 317-c. 388), Simplicius, and most important of all, the Christian neo-Platonist John Philoponus, whose ideas were destined to have a large impact on both Islamic and Latin natural philosophy. But the level of achievement was seriously affected in A.D. 529, when, on religious grounds, the emperor Justinian ordered the closing of Plato's Academy in Athens, forcing a number of philosophers to depart the Byzantine Empire and move to the East. After that natural philosophy and science played a minor role in Byzantine intellectual life. This is surprising when we realise that, as compared to their contemporary counterparts in Islam and the Latin West, Byzantine scholars were truly fortunate, because their native language was Greek. They could read, study, and interpret, without problems of translation, all the works available in the Greek language that had accumulated in the Byzantine Empire, especially in Constantinople, since the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Indeed, most of our Greek manuscripts come from Byzantium."



Alhazen, when he made his work on optics, relied heavily on Greek mathematics, philosophy and medicine, most of which had initially been translated to Arabic from Byzantine manuscripts. Yet there was no Alhazen in Byzantium itself. Grant again, page 229:



"It is a paradox of history that the civilisations of Islam and Western Europe contributed significantly to the store of human knowledge, using translated works and often lacking important earlier texts, while the Byzantines, who had command of the Greek language and easy access to the manuscript sources of their great Greek predecessors, failed to capitalise on their good fortune."



There were some brief Byzantine "renaissances." The Empire wasn't static and did an invaluable job in preserving older knowledge, but few works of lasting significance were produced there during the Middle Ages. I still believe that my conclusion in the online essay The Legacy of Byzantium[1], inspired by Timothy Gregory's fascinating book A History of Byzantium, was largely correct:


It is true that the Byzantine Empire has received some bad press. However, scholars James E. McClellan III and Harold Dorn sum up the established wisdom in their book Science and Technology in World History, second edition, when they state that 'Byzantium never became a center of significant original science.' It is surely one of history's great ironies that the Greco-Roman knowledge that was preserved by the Byzantines had a greater impact in the West than it did in the Byzantine Empire itself. Although being for centuries at the front lines of Islamic Jihad certainly didn't help, this doesn't suffice to explain fully the failure of Byzantium to develop modern science. When studying the Byzantine Empire, one cannot help but notice that the separation of church and state which took place in the West after the papal revolution never happened there. Byzantium remained a somewhat autocratic state, thus in some ways resembling China – and perhaps later on Russia - more than Western Europe. The development of parliaments, autonomous cities and numerous universities that took place in the Christian West did not happen in the Christian East.


However, also in the Islamic world, Greek logic and natural philosophy was never fully accepted, and what initial acceptance there had been was largely nullified by the extremely influential Muslim theologian al-Ghazali (1058-1111). Al-Ghazali regarded theology and natural philosophy as dangerous to the Islamic faith and was skeptical of the concept of mathematical proof. As Edward Grant says, page 238:



"[Al-Ghazali] included the mathematical sciences within the class of philosophical sciences (i.e., mathematics, logic, natural science, theology or metaphysics, politics, and ethics) and concluded that a student who studied these sciences would be 'infected with the evil and corruption of the philosophers. Few there are who devote themselves to this study without being stripped of religion and having the bridle of godly fear removed from their heads' (Watt 1953, 34). In his great philosophical work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, al-Ghazali attacks ancient philosophy, especially the views of Aristotle. He does so by describing and criticising the ideas of al-Farabi and Avicenna, two of the most important Islamic philosophical commentators on Aristotle. After criticising their opinions on twenty philosophical problems, including the eternality of the world, that God knows only universals and not particulars, and that bodies will not be resurrected after death, al-Ghazali declares: 'All these three theories are in violent opposition to Islam. To believe in them is to accuse the prophets of falsehood, and to consider their teachings as a hypocritical misrepresentation designed to appeal to the masses. And this is blatant blasphemy to which no Muslim sect would subscribe' (al-Ghazali 1963, 249)."



As Ibn Warraq sums up in his modern classic Why I Am Not a Muslim, "orthodox Islam emerged victorious from the encounter with Greek philosophy. Islam rejected the idea that one could attain truth with unaided human reason and settled for the unreflective comforts of the putatively superior truth of divine revelation. Wherever one decides to place the date of this victory of orthodox Islam (perhaps in the ninth century with the conversion of al-Ashari, or in the eleventh century with the works of al-Ghazali), it has been, I believe, an unmitigated disaster for all Muslims, indeed all mankind."


Al-Ghazali, whose influence cannot be overstated, was a highly orthodox Muslim on matters regarding the use of violence against non-Muslims. Here is al-Ghazali on the importance of Jihad against the unbelievers, as quoted by Robert Spencer in his excellent book Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn't:



"[O]ne must go on jihad [i.e., warlike razzias or raids] at least once a year...One may use a catapult against them [non-Muslims] when they are in a fortress, even if among them are women and children. One may set fire to them and/or drown them...If a person of the ahl al-kitab [People of the Book] is enslaved, his marriage is [automatically] revoked...One may cut down their trees...One must destroy their useless books. Jihadists may take as booty whatever they decide...They may steal as much food as they need."



Another Muslim thinker, the thirteenth century North African Ibn Khaldun, had a traditional view of Jihad and shared the deep suspicion of philosophy. Edward Grant, page 242:



"Even so enlightened an author as Ibn Khaldun (A.D. 1332-1406) was hostile to philosophy and philosophers. On the basis of his great Introduction to History (Muqaddimah), Ibn Khaldun is regarded as the first historian to write a world history. According to Franz Rosenthal: 'The Muqaddimah was indeed the first large-scale attempt to analyze the group relationships that govern human political and social organisation on the basis of environmental and psychological factors' (Rosenthal 1973, 321). Despite his brilliance as an historian, Ibn Khaldun included a chapter in the Muqaddimah titled 'A refutation of philosophy. The corruption of the students of philosophy' (Ibn Khaldun 1958, 3:246-258). In this chapter, Ibn Khaldun condemns the opinions of philosophers as wrong and proclaims to his fellow Muslims that 'the problems of physics are of no importance for us in our religious affairs or our livelihoods. Therefore, we must leave them alone' (Ibn Khaldun 1958, 3:251-252). He regarded the study of logic as dangerous to the faithful unless they were deeply immersed in the Qur'an and the Muslim religious sciences to fortify themselves against its methods."



In my online essay The West, Japan, and Cultural Secondarity[2], I discuss the ideas of French thinker Remi Brague as outlined in his book Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilisation. Brague claims that Muslims largely lacked the European instinct for self-criticism and appreciation of "the other." They did translate works from Greek and other languages like Sanskrit and Persian, but they usually didn't preserve the originals. This made "renaissances," the act of going back to the sources to reinterpret them, impossible in the Islamic world. He quotes Ibn Khaldun as saying the following in the Muqaddimah:



"(The Muslims) desired to learn the sciences of the (foreign) nations. They made them their own through translations. They pressed them into the mold of their own views. They peeled off these strange tongues [and made them pass] into their [own] idiom, and surpassed the achievements of (the non-Arabs) in them. The manuscripts in the non-Arabic languages were forgotten, abandoned, and scattered. All the sciences came to exist in Arabic. The systematic works on them were written in (Arabic) writing. Thus, students of the sciences needed a knowledge of the meaning of (Arabic) words and (Arabic) writing. They could dispense with all other languages, because they had been wiped out and there was no longer any interest in them."



Logic continued to be used as an ancillary subject in scholastic theology (kalam) and in many Islamic religious schools, but there was enough hostility toward philosophy to prompt philosophers to keep a low profile. Those who taught it often did so privately, not within the established institutions. Here is Edward Grant in Science and Religion, page 239:



"Following the translations in the early centuries of Islam, Greek philosophy, primarily Aristotle's, received its strongest support from a number of individuals scattered about the Islamic world. As we have already mentioned, al-Kindi, al-Razi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd were among the greatest Islamic philosophers. All were persecuted to some extent. Al-Kindi's case reveals important aspects of intellectual life in Islam. The first of the Islamic commentators on Aristotle, al-Kindi was at first favorably received by two caliphs (al-Mamun and al-Mutassim), but his luck ran out with al-Mutawwakil, the Sunni caliph mentioned earlier. According to Pervez Hoodbhoy, 'It was not hard for the ulema [religious scholars] to convince the ruler that the philosopher had very dangerous beliefs. Mutawwakil soon ordered the confiscation of the scholar's personal library….But that was not enough. The sixty-year-old Muslim philosopher also received fifty lashes before a large crowd which had assembled. Observers who recorded the event say the crowd roared approval with each stroke' (Hoodbhoy 1991, 111). The other four scholars were also subjected to some degree of persecution, and a number of them had to flee for their safety."



This situation was radically different in the Latin West. There was sporadic opposition to the use of reason and one attempt to ban the works of Aristotle at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century, but this was of brief duration and eventually failed. There were no later attempts to ban the use of logic and natural philosophy per se, although there could of course be criticism against specific interpretations. "After the 1240s and for the rest of the Middle Ages, attacks on reason would have been regarded as bizarre and unacceptable."


In contrast, Islam is in principle a theocracy in which religion and state form a single entity. Islamic schools, or madrasas, generally taught "Islamic science," that is theology, Arabic grammar, the Koran and the hadith etc. Greek and other non-Muslim philosophy was called "foreign sciences" and was never integrated into the core curriculum. Grant again, page 243:



"[The madrasas] had as their primary mission the teaching of the Islamic religion, and paid little attention to the foreign sciences, which, as we saw, were comprised of the science and natural philosophy derived ultimately from the Greeks. The analytical subjects derived from the Greeks certainly did not have equal status with religious and theological subjects. Indeed, the foreign sciences played a rather marginal role in the madrasas, which formed the core of Islamic higher education. Only those subjects that illuminated the Qur'an or the religious law were taught. One such subject was logic, which was found useful not only in semantics but was also regarded as helpful in avoiding simple errors of inference. The primary function of the madrasas, however, was 'to preserve learning and defend orthodoxy' (Mottahedeh 1985, 91). In Islam, most theologians did not regard natural philosophy as a subject helpful to a better understanding of religion. On the contrary, it was usually viewed as a subject capable of subverting the Islamic religion and, therefore, as potentially dangerous to the faith. Natural philosophy always remained a peripheral discipline in the lands of Islam and was never institutionalised within the educational system, as it was in Latin Christendom."



Greek natural philosophy, however, became fully integrated into the university curriculum in Europe. As Grant explains, page 244-245:



"It is important to point out that not only did university-trained theologians fully accept and embrace the discipline of natural philosophy, but many, if not most, of them were eager and active contributors to the literature of natural philosophy. It is for that reason that it is wholly appropriate to call them 'theologian-natural philosophers.' They were equally at home in both disciplines and were keen to import as much natural philosophy as they could into the resolution of theological problems, while avoiding any temptations to theologise natural philosophy. This explains why some medieval theologians can be equated with the best of the secular natural philosophers, such as John Buridan and Albert of Saxony. Some theologians, such as Albertus Magnus and Nicole Oresme, were clearly superior to them. By their actions, theologians in the West were full participants in the development and dissemination of natural philosophy. They made it possible for the institutionalisation of natural philosophy in the universities of the late Middle Ages, and therefore its extensive dissemination. Nothing like this occurred in the Byzantine Empire or in Islam."



One of the most important advantages Catholic Europe enjoyed during this period was the separation between church and state. Edward Grant, page 246-247:



"[Byzantines and Muslims] paid a heavy price for failing to separate church and state. In both societies, Aristotle's natural philosophy was regarded as potentially dangerous because it encompassed ideas and concepts that were hostile to both religions, and because it was often felt that scholars who focused too much on natural philosophy would either neglect religion or come to regard it as inferior to natural philosophy. Islam's failure to separate church and state nullified an institutional advantage it had over Western Christendom. Where the latter was organised as a centralised, hierarchical religion with a single individual – the Pope – holding ultimate power, Islam was a decentralised religion with no hierarchical structure. What power there was derived from local religious leaders who drew on the support of their fellow Muslims. Under these circumstances, we might expect that freedom of inquiry and the cultivation of a vibrant, sustained natural philosophy would have been more likely to occur within the decentralised Muslim religion than within the highly centralised Catholic Church of Western Europe. As we now know, the reverse occurred: the West developed a lively natural philosophy, whereas in Islam natural philosophy became a peripheral and suspect discipline, whose study could even prove dangerous."



The European university system had no real equivalent in any other major civilisation in the world at the time. As Toby Huff says in his book, page 234:



"We should also not underestimate the magnitude of the step taken when it was decided (in part, following ancient tradition) to make the study of philosophy and all aspects of the natural world an official and public enterprise. If this seems a mundane achievement, it is due to our Eurocentrism which forgets that the study of the natural sciences and philosophy was shunned in the Islamic colleges of the Middle East and that all such inquiries were undertaken in carefully guarded private settings. Likewise, in China, there were no autonomous institutions of learning independent of the official bureaucracy; the ones that existed were completely at the mercy of the centralised state. Nor were philosophers given the liberty to define for themselves the realms of learning as occurred in the West."



Edward Grant has been important in bringing to light this role played by the university system in preparing the ground for the later Scientific Revolution. As he concludes on page 248:



"Without the separation of church and state, and the developments that proceeded as a consequence, the West would not have produced a deeply rooted natural philosophy that was disseminated through Europe by virtue of an extensive network of universities, which laid the foundation for the great scientific advances made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, advances that have continued to the present day."



For further developments in the Western (but not so much in other) scientific traditions from the sixteenth century onward, The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors by John Gribbin is fascinating and easy to read.


Toby E. Huff in his excellent The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West, agrees with Grant's assessment of the importance of the university system. Here is Huff, page 344:



"For a dispassionate examination of the educational backgrounds of major scientists from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century shows that the vast majority of them were in fact university educated. As John Gascoigne has shown, 'Something like 87% of the European scientists born between 1450 and 1650 [who were] thought worthy of inclusion in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography were university educated.' More importantly, 'A large proportion of this group was not only university educated but held career posts at a university.' For the period 1450-1650 this was 45 percent, and for 1450-1550, it was 51 percent. If one speaks of particular scientists, then one must immediately acknowledge that Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Newton were all extraordinary products of the apparently procrustean and allegedly Scholastic universities of Europe. In short, sociological and historical accounts of the role of the university as an institutional locus for science and as an incubator of scientific thought and argument have been vastly understated."



Nothing like this existed in the Islamic world. Universities could only be established in Spain and Portugal after these countries had been re-conquered by the Christians. Huff, page 212:



"If Spain had persisted as an Islamic land into the later centuries - say, until the time of Napoleon - it would have retained all the ideological, legal, and institutional defects of Islamic civilisation. A Spain dominated by Islamic law would have been unable to found new universities based on the European model of legally autonomous corporate governance, as corporations do not exist in Islamic law. Furthermore, the Islamic model of education rested on the absolute primacy of fiqh, of legal studies, and the standard of preserving the great traditions of the past. This was symbolically reflected in the ijaza, the personal authorisation to transmit knowledge from the past given by a learned man, a tradition quite different from the West's group-administered certification (through examination) of demonstrated learning. In the actual event, the founding of Spanish universities in the thirteenth century, first in Palencia (1208-9), Valladolid, Salamanca (1227-8), and so on, occurred in long-established Christian areas, and the universities were modeled after the constitutions of Paris and Bologna."



There is also an important theological aspect here in that Muslims generally viewed God as unpredictable, whereas both Christians and Jews could more easily view God as predictable, having created the world according to logical natural laws which could be uncovered and understood by humans. Toby E. Huff, page 116:



"In short, the European medievals had fashioned an image of man that was so imbued with reason and rationality that philosophical and theological speculation became breathtaking spheres of inquiry whose outcomes were far from predictable, or orthodox - to the consternation of all. Furthermore, this theological and philosophical speculation was taking place within the citadels of Western learning, that is, in the universities. Christian theology had indeed clothed man with a new set of methods and motivations, but it had also attributed to him a new set of rational capacities that knew no bounds."



Sadly, at the beginning of the 21st century, this university system arguably no longer works as well as it once did. As Ibn Warraq puts it in his great book Defending the West:



"The West, in giving in to political correctness and in being corrupted by Saudi and other Arab money, is ceasing to honour the original intent of the university. In recent years, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries (e.g., Brunei) have established chairs of Islamic studies in prestigious Western universities, which are then encouraged to present a favorable image of Islam. Scientific research leading to objective truth no longer seems to be the goal. Critical examination of the sources or the Koran is discouraged. Scholars such as Daniel Easterman have even lost their posts for not teaching about Islam in the way approved by Saudi Arabia. In December 2005, Georgetown and Harvard universities each accepted $ 20 million from Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal for programs in Islamic studies. The Carter Center, founded by former president Jimmy Carter, is funded in part by bin Talal. Such money can only corrupt the original intent of all higher institutions of education, that is, the search for truth. Now, we shall have only "Islamic truth" that is acceptable to the royal Saudi family, a family that has financed terrorism, anti-Westernism, and anti-Semitism for more than thirty years."



This is financial corruption and intimidation, but even before this, Western universities seemed to be increasingly preoccupied with deconstructing their own civilisation and praising the most barbaric cultures and regimes on earth. This is by no means universally true, of course. There is still much great work done at Western universities, as Mr. Grant himself is living proof of. But it is difficult to deny the fact that there has been a decline in free inquiry and good scholarship. Exactly how this happened, how the Western university system went from being a great comparative advantage to being something resembling a problem is an interesting question, but one that will have to be dealt with in a separate essay. Meanwhile, Edward Grant has done an excellent job at reminding us of how unique it once was.











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