Did Early Islam Promote Science?
Nature published a news feature this week crediting a religion, Islam, with advancing science, but saying nothing about the Christian roots of science.1 It begins,
Western science owes much to Islam’s golden age – a debt that is often forgotten. To help redress the balance, Fuat Sezgin has reconstructed a host of scientific treasures using ancient Arabic texts. Alison Abbott reports.
Sezgin (professor emeritus on the history of science at the University of Frankfurt) is given very positive press. His mission is to help Westerners realize that “the Arab world was the guardian of the ancient Greeks’ scientific knowledge during the Middle Ages, before the European Renaissance rediscovered and extended it.” He has opened a museum in Germany with 800 machines built from descriptions in medieval Arab texts.
1Alison Abbott, “Islamic science: Rebuilding the past,” Nature 432, 794 – 795 (16 December 2004); doi:10.1038/432794a.
For contrasting view, see our online book in progress, The World’s Greatest Creation Scientists. 432, 794 – 795 (16 December 2004); doi:10.1038/432794a.
The history of science is a complex subject involving centuries of political and ideological trends, thousands of players, and multitudes of documents, but two things are clear: true modern science was born in countries that had a Christian world view, and the greatest scientists of the scientific revolution came from a Christian background. Without slighting the contributions of the Greeks and Arabs, to portray otherwise is to distort history.
Half truths are deadly because they contain some truth. It is true that medieval European scholars were in debt to the Arabs for Greek texts, machinery, medicine, mathematics and more. It is true that Arab scholars made significant advances in medicine, astronomy, and mathematics before the European Reformation and Renaissance. But it is also true that Islam conquered countries mercilessly with the sword (as it does now) and would have overrun Europe had not the Europeans resisted. Would their complete domination of Europe ushered in a golden age? Would the rise of science have been as meteoric under the caliphs as it was under the Reformers? Why is Nature so quick to praise the religion of Islam, and so silent about the Christian faith of most of the founders of modern science?
Any scholar, including Sezgin, who brings historical facts to light is deserving of credit. If he is helping correct some imbalances in the history of science, that is good. Displaying devices that Arab inventors made, including complex astrolabes, surgical devices, water clocks and anesthetics, is as worthwhile as displaying those made by the Chinese, the Egyptians or the Mayans. But to suggest that Europe stole science from the Muslims is a distortion. Despite centuries of opportunity, a true self-sustaining scientific enterprise did not arise in Islamic countries, and Islamic countries today are some of the most scientifically backward of all (see 11/21/2004 headline).
Science involves not just making inventions but striving to understand the working of the world. Most cultures, in spite of their religions, have shown skill at architecture and invention, often due to necessity (war, sanitation, healing sickness or injury, providing water supply and food), or for artistic purposes. All societies, additionally, have innately intelligent or skilled people who can achieve greatness and satisfaction in their works. But that is not the same thing as science. Only in Christian Europe did a true scientific revolution take place, largely because Christian philosophers saw nature as a handwork of God that operated under His law. Abbott mentions many inventions in her article, but not any Arab search after scientific principles; yet she uses the phrase “Islamic science” repeatedly when Islamic technology would be more appropriate. It is odd that Nature would have so much good to say about the Greeks whose works the Arabs translated, but whose scientific ideas were so often wrong, based not on the scientific method but usually on the reasonings of their fallible minds. Yet much of Islamic “science” included a slavish devotion to the wisdom of the Greeks, especially Aristotle. It took a long time for the Europeans to wean themselves off Aristotle and learn by experiment, like the work of Robert Boyle and Johannes Kepler (both devout Bible-believing Christians) that nature operates primarily through God-ordained natural laws. These scientists, like many other Christians, explored nature not for gain or fame or pragmatism, but sheerly for the joy of discovering the workings of God.
Abbott grossly whitewashes the Islamic sword of terror. Notice this sentence: “As the reach of the Islamic world spread, stretching from northern India to Spain, they absorbed as much knowledge as they could from each conquest.” Listen, people: the Islamic world did not “spread” like soft margarine on a butter knife, with the bread of humanity eager to soak it up. The knife was a butcher knife, sharp and red with blood. The caliphs Abbott speaks so well of promoted learning as much for personal fame and national fortune than for understanding. Here is another whitewash:
In the fifteenth century, the Islamic world shrank under military pressure from western Europe – the last Muslim forces were forced out of Spain in 1492, the year Christopher Columbus reached America. By this time, the European Renaissance was under way and Islamic knowledge was sucked up by powers on the rise, such as Spain and France.
Oh, those nasty Europeans, with their military and political ambitions trying to suppress the wisdom of the peace-loving Muslims, but taking their knowledge as booty. Abbott should thank God that the Europeans finally had the guts to oust a religious empire that wanted to take over the world by the sword.
This is the same religion terrorizing our world today. Cry about separation of church and state in America? There is none in Islamic countries. This is the same religion holding its populace hostage to a seventh-century culture, impoverishing its citizens, denying its women of basic human rights and teaching a distorted history of the world (i.e., Jews were the Nazis, and there is no Israel). Tell the truth, Nature – the whole truth. Anthony Flew, the former atheist philosopher (see 12/09/2004 headline), said, “Islam has neither suffered nor enjoyed either a Reformation or an Enlightenment.” He added, “As for Islam, it is, I think, best described in a Marxian way as the uniting and justifying ideology of Arab imperialism” —
I would never regard Islam with anything but horror and fear because it is fundamentally committed to conquering the world for Islam. It was because the whole of Palestine was part of the land of Islam that Muslim Arab armies moved in to try to destroy Israel at birth, and why the struggle for the return of the still surviving refugees and their numerous descendants continue to this day.
He also described reading the Quran as “a penance more than a pleasure,” and compared Jesus and Muhammed thus: “for goodness sake, Jesus is an enormously attractive charismatic figure, which the Prophet of Islam most emphatically is not.” Muhammed was no scientist. He was a superstitious, impetuous, conceited, philandering, bloodthirsty tyrant.
Yet Nature seems to be on a new campaign to whitewash the very religion that is responsible for the most terror, the most tyranny, the most genocide and the most unenlightenment in the world today. Imagine schools of the future slighting or ignoring Newton or Galileo, but paying homage to Avicenna and Muhammed as the fathers of science. Imagine Christianity and Judaism being ignored or condemned as anti-intellectual. Visualize the educational laws of the future forbidding the teaching of both atheistic Darwinism and Christian (European/American) science in the science class, but extolling the work of Arab scholars. Imagine them recounting for students selective horrors committed by Europe and Israel in their conflicts with Muslims, but sweeping under the rug centuries of atrocities committed with the sword of Allah. Would this be an improvement on the current tyranny of naturalistic science in the schools? Is this the kind of new politically-correct philosophy of science that Nature will promote after the fall of the current idol, Charles Darwin? Will Sagan, the popularizer of atheistic science, be eclipsed by Sezgin, the popularizer of Islamic science? Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, you find the devil is clever.