Much is made of ‘Islamic science’ during the period, roughly, between the 8th century and the 14th century. Much of what is said is politically biased and presented to prove some point or other about Islam (especially when it is said by proselytising Muslims or by Islamophiles).
It can be allowed, of course, that the phrase ‘Islamic science’ is just as convenient term used to say ‘the science of Islamic civilisation’. That would be fair enough if it were that simple. But we all know that it is not usually used in that innocent way. The phrase is often used to imply, or state, that there was some intrinsic link between science and Islam during this period. Not only that, but that science and Islam lived together in harmony in the Islamic ‘golden age’. However, the hint or statement that there was a strong Islam-science connection has done a lot of propaganda-work for both Muslims and Islamophiles and that’s why I have focussed on the phrase itself.
It is of course very illuminating that Muslims and Islamophiles need to go back to the 14th or 13th century in order to sell us Islam. What have Muslim philosophers and scientists been doing since then - in the last 700 or more years? I’ll tell you. They have carried on being monomaniacs about Allah and all the things which flow from him, such as the Koran, the Prophet and so on. Not only that, we shall also see that even during the Islamic golden age many scientists and philosophers were given a very hard time by the Islamic authorities. Many of them were killed, or exiled or imprisoned and their books burned or banned. So even during this highpoint of Islamic civilisation there was a conflict between Islam and science. Indeed it is precisely because of the nature of Islam/the Koran that there couldn’t help but be such a conflict. Any great work that was done in science during that period was done in spite of Islam, not because of it.
For a start, there is no such thing as ‘Islamic science’. There is only science. Fair enough, many practitioners and theorists in the sciences have been Muslims. That doesn’t make their science itself Islamic or even Muslim. Similarly, when Christians practised science they were not practising Christian science. It is like calling a Somalian scientist a practitioner of ‘Somalian science’. Even if there were particularities and peculiarities to the science practised by Muslims, those particularities would still not have been Islamic in nature. So this isn’t a denial of cultural or historical variants in the history, theory and practice of science, which have obviously been very important. The simple point is that there is nothing in the Koran, the hadiths, the life of Mohammed, etc., to sustain or even inspire science, properly called. How could there be? This is not to say that some Muslim scientists, say in the 12th century, were not inspired by the Koran or whatever. However, this inspiration would be no different to a scientist being inspired by a Mozart symphony or a sunset. This would not make this science Mozartian, etc.
What we need to say, then, is not that ‘Islamic science’ (or ‘Islamic philosophy’) influenced or even determined Western science. We can say, instead, that Muslims, or even Islamic civilization, had a profound influence on European science – science practised by, and theorised about, by Europeans! We can happily say this. Take this list of English words taken from Islamic civilization:
alkali, sherbet, camphor, elixir, talc, nadir, zenith, azure, zero, cipher, algebra, lute, artichoke, coffee, jasmine and so on.
Remember that the above list is to be seen only as a collection of words. It still cannot be said that Muslims, or Islamic civilization, was solely responsible, or responsible at all, for the concepts and things attached, as it were, to some or all of the words above. (Take zero, which was in fact an Indian/Hindu, or at least a pre-Islamic, ‘invention’.)
Muslim Scientists were Parasitical on non-Muslim Scientists
Bertrand Russell once wrote that ‘Muslims were parasitic on Greek science and philosophy’. Perhaps that is too strong and not even completely accurate. However, many commentators (the ones who don’t want to get a point across about Islam vis-à-vis Europe) have stressed that Muslims didn’t substantially improve the works of the Greeks which were passed on to them (or discovered by them). This was not always the case, but it was mainly so. Positively speaking, however, Muslim scientists did make original contributions to trigonometry. Muslims are said to have invented the plane and spherical trigonometry. Their talent, if one can generalise, was mainly in practical/technological rather than theoretical science. For example, there was a lot of good work done on optics. Much theoretical and practical work was also done in medicine, algebra, arithmetic, geometry, mechanics and astronomy.
Again, despite all this, it would be silly to say that there are such things as Islamic algebra, or Islamic arithmetic, let alone Islamic optics! Surely, then, we can generalise by saying that there was no such thing as Islamic science either.
Knowledge, as Seen in Medieval Islam
Alongside the many claims that Islam was favourable to science and even encouraged it, goes the remarkable claim that such an attitude was fostered by the Koran itself. Or at least less than a handful of passages in the Koran did so.
This is one quote which Muslims and Islamophiles may fire at you:
‘Say, shall those who have knowledge and those have it no be deemed equal?’ (Koran, 39:12)
As well as:
‘Seek knowledge, in China if necessary.’
But the most famous of all is:
‘The search after knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim.’
That sounds very Western and enlightened at first sight. But is it? What is meant by ‘knowledge’ here? Western philosophers have been trying to define knowledge since the time of Plato. Plato and others more or less said that it was ‘justified true opinion’. That, admittedly, doesn’t help us much. That doesn’t matter because the references to knowledge in the Koran are not part of this long and ongoing philosophical tradition. They are not part of the scientific tradition either. What is meant here is ‘religious knowledge’. Or, more precisely, knowledge of what the Prophet Mohammed has said to be true. Therefore what Allah himself said to be true.
This is similarly to receiving a visit from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or some other evangelising group (say, Trotskyites), in which they offer us ‘truth’. What they really mean by ‘truth’ is the truth which can be found in their chosen holy book or whatever was said by Jesus and their other holy favourites (or by Marx or Trotsky). This is not a journey of the discovery of truth but the adoption of the attitude of faith to the words which can be found in a certain holy book and/or faith. The same is true of ‘knowledge’ in the Koran. This is not the discovery of truth or even an explication of knowledge. The Koran is being self-referential in that it is telling is to accept what it has to say on knowledge and what are the truths. By accepting that, you will be accepting the truth and knowledge of Allah himself.
Islamic Sciences and Foreign Sciences
All this can be seen in the Islamic distinction which was made between ‘Islamic sciences’ and ‘foreign sciences’. Islamic sciences were primarily religious or theological in nature. ‘Foreign sciences’ were not. Thus we can now say that Islamic or Koranic knowledge was religious knowledge. Because of this, other kinds of knowledge were, well, sometimes unacceptable. However, this is not to say that Islamic sciences were not broad in output and approach. They included:
Koranic exegesis, the science of the hadith, jurisprudence, scholastic theology, grammar, lexicography, rhetoric and literature.
We can immediately see that all these divisions had a religious/theological or Koranic basis. Sometimes it is not even a question of a Koranic or religious basis, but the whole division/science was religious from top to bottom. Koranic exegesis and the ‘science of the hadith’ speak for themselves. But even jurisprudence would have been based on the Koran and sharia law. ‘Grammar’ was the grammar of the Koran, the hadiths, etc. The same goes for lexicography, rhetoric and even literature. Nothing escaped the religious/Koranic domain. That is why Muslims distinguished such things from foreign sciences.
The foreign sciences included:
The propaedeutic disciplines, the physical and metaphysical sciences of the Greeks, the various branches of mathematics, philosophy, natural history (zoology, botany, etc.) medicine, astronomy and music.
Science Flourished in Spite of Islam, Not Because of It
I made the point at the beginning that there is no such thing as ‘Islamic science’. It partly follows from this that
science and philosophy flourished in this period in spite of Islam, not because of it.
There was nothing in Islam itself, or in the Koran, the hadiths, the life of Mohammed, etc. which seeded science. The only thing that could be hoped for is that the religious/political authorities did not interfere with the work of Muslim scientists. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn’t.
All along, during this ‘Golden age’ of Islamic civilisation, there was a to-and-thro between reaction (against science) and intellectual freedom. This is how Grunebaum puts it:
‘Those accomplishments of Islamic mathematical and medical science which continue to compel our admiration were developed in areas and in periods where the elites were willing to go beyond and possibly against the basic strains of orthodox thought and feeling.’ (page 114, G.E. Von Grunebaum, Islam, Essays in the Nature and Growth of a Cultural Tradition, Chicago, 1955).
Not only was ‘Islamic science’ actually in spite of Islam, or at least in spite of the upholders of Islam, but Muslims, when they felt like it, did quite often and easily opt to curtail science, or at least to curtail the aspects of science that might have conflicted with Islam itself.
Ernest Renan says the same thing:
‘Science and philosophy flourished on Musalman soil during the first half of the middle ages; but it was not by reason of Islam, it was in spite of Islam. Not a Musalman philosopher or scholar escaped persecution.’ (Ernest Renan, Islamisme et la science, lecture, 1883)
I mentioned a few moments ago the Islamic distinction between foreign sciences and Islamic sciences. I placed zoology on the foreign science side. However, even when Muslims did study zoology they still did so with their Islamic or religious hats on. George Sarton wrote:
‘Muslims, with but few exceptions, were hardly interested in the scientific aspects of these matters [the distributions of the animal kingdom], but rather in their theological implications; they were not thinking so much of evolution from a human or naturalistic point of view as of creation from the divine one.’ (Quoted in Von Grunebaum, see above, page 123)
The Case of the Averroes (Ahmad ibn Rushd: 1126-1198)
The most important Islamic philosopher… ah, again, that’s not quite right! The most important philosopher who was also a Muslim was Averroes. Actually, this is not quite right either in the case of philosophers. That is, Averroes was an Islamic philosopher, but only when dealing with theological or religious subjects and concerns. Even more correctly, only when dealing with theological or religious subjects and concerns from within the parameters set by Islamic theology and religion (otherwise it would have been the philosophy of religion proper). However, it is arguable that in the former case we should call him a ‘theologian’, not a ‘philosopher’. Anyway. When he was philosophising about issues which were not religious he was a Muslim philosopher, or a philosopher who happened to be a Muslim, not an Islamic philosopher.
I said that Averroes was one of the most important Muslims philosophers… but this is not really the case for Muslims! Only to non-Muslims. He had a profound influence of Latin philosophers and scientists of the 13th century. Despite all this, Averroes had no influence at all on the development of the kinds of philosophy which Muslims developed in the Muslim world. After his death, he was more or less forgotten by Muslims in the Islamic world. So when Muslims - more likely, Islamophiles - tell us how important ‘Islamic philosophers’ like Averroes were to Europe, perhaps we should remind them of these facts. Renan does just that:
‘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, is as if one were to ascribe to the Inquisition the discoveries of Galileo…’
Again, we can say that Averroes, as well as many other ‘Islamic’ philosophers and scientists, did their work in spite of Islam, not because of it.
When All Were Muslim
The other point to make seems obvious, if only after it is stated. In Islamic world of the 8th to 14th centuries, everybody, except a few (but often important) dhimmis, was, well, a Muslim. Thus if anybody was to do anything at all at that time, they would have done so as a Muslim. Everybody had to be a Muslim. That included scientists and philosophers as well as toilet cleaners and camel shearers. It is not surprising, then, that the great minds of this period were Muslim. They couldn’t have been anything but Muslim! There were certainly no atheists or out-and-out naturalists then. So yes, we can happily accept that much great science and philosophy was done by Muslims, as Sam Harris happily does:
‘Of course, like every religion, Islam has had its moments. Muslim scholars invented algebra, translated the writings of Plato and Aristotle, and made important contributions to a variety of s nascent sciences at a time when European Christians were luxuriating in the most abysmal ignorance. It was only through the Muslim conquest of Spain that classical Greek texts found their way into Latin translations and seeded the Renaissance in western Europe.’ (The End of Faith, 2005, page 108)
All well and good then. Absolutely. What has all this got to do with Islam itself? What has it got to do with the Koran, the hadiths or the ‘exemplary life’ of Mohammed? Not only that. These scientists and philosophers didn’t really do their work qua Muslims, let alone because of Islam. As Harris continues:
‘It is a truism to say that people of faith have created almost everything of value in our world, because nearly every person who has ever swung a hammer or trimmed a sail has been a devout member of one or another religious culture. There has been simply no one else to do the job.’ (108)
Thus Averroes, Avicenna, al Farabi, et al, couldn’t help but be Muslims. Actually, they could have been Jews, Christians or even Persians or Indians. Even then they would have belonged to some religion or other. This would not have made their science or philosophy Islamic, at least not automatically. The Persians and Indians just mentioned didn’t create Zoroastrian or Hindu science/philosophy either. No. Science and philosophy happened to be done by people who were Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc. That’s all.
Despite all that, it will be conceded by certain Muslims that there is no Islamic science as such. However, he or she may still say that so-and-so philosopher or scientist in the Muslim tradition was a deeply religious man and he did his scientific or philosophical work firmly within the ambit of Islam. His religion inspired him and nourished his non-religious work. After all, on the Christian side of things, Newton and many of famous scientists and philosophers were religious men. But as I said earlier, scientists and philosophers of any time before the 18th century couldn’t help but be Christians and possibly also ‘spiritual men’ into the bargain. There was nothing else for them to be.
So even if there is no such thing as Islamic science, many people are still keen to make a connection between religion and science. For example, as an argument against atheists - and even agnostics - we may well here words like this:
‘Newton was religious. Who are you to set yourself up as superior to Newton, Galileo, Kepler, etc. etc. etc.? If God was good enough for the likes of them, just who do you think you are?’ (123)
Well, Heidegger and Strauss were supporters of the Nazi Party. Should we also acknowledge the Nazi party when we acknowledge their work? Wagner was a rabid anti-Semite. Does this give anti-Semitism some points? More to the point, how important was anti-Semitism to Wagner’s music (if not his words!)?
Now I am straying from my main point. Perhaps we can allow the importance of religion on scientists and philosophers and even on their actual work. However, none of this would make their work Islamic or Christian philosophy or science, just as Wagner’s actual music is not Nazi or anti-Semitic music. (There is room to discuss the possibility that Heidegger’s philosophy, since it deals in words and with ideas, is in fact ‘Nazi’ philosophy, at least in parts.)