Islam and Science
By Dr Sabieh Anwar, Dawn, August 31, 2008
Over the years, there has been considerable hype about Islam and science in our academic and public circles and several books have come out in the limelight. Fortunately, there is consensus on three facts. First, Muslims enjoyed a remarkable ascendancy in science for about five centuries, an ascendancy that was unrivalled by any contemporary civilisation. Second, science has now dwindled to frighteningly low standards in the Muslim world and there is a critical need to rescue the Muslim culture from complete intellectual annihilation. Third, there exists the appreciation that science and Islam are compatible. Over and above these fundamental agreements, there is considerable dispute.
One of the more influential articulations on the subject of science and Islam, and the ongoing debate between the religious orthodoxy and the rational intelligentsia has come from the camp of the modern secularists, especially from the physicist, University professor and social activist, Pervez Hoodbhoy in his book Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality (Zed Books, London 1991).
The book is written in clear and effective language and sets the tone for the more reasoned debate on this subject within Pakistan. It performs the much-needed task of exposing Islam-inspired pseudo-scientists whose only claim to fame is giving scientific explanations for miracles, lending credence to superstitions, proving that all science is imbedded in the Quran and of course, reject the theory of evolution.
The Beaten Track
Hoodbhoy’s gripping narrative is a classic example of the ‘classical narrative’. According to the classical picture, Muslim scientists transcended in all major fields of scientific inquiry but there role remained, at best, one of an intelligent postman. They took the classic Greek sources and engaged in a massive translation and commentary enterprise, mostly under the patronage of the Abbasid Caliph Mamun-ur-Rashid in his bait-ul-hikmah (House of Wisdom) around 830 C.E. The greatest translator of all times was Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, not a Muslim but a Christian. After this translation movement, the end product was bequeathed to the West at the time of the so-called first Renaissance, around the 12th century. Science in the Islamic world then became irrelevant.
There are, however, serious problems with this approach. First, the narrative assumes that Muslims by themselves were incapable of originating any new scientific ideas. The first Muslims were the desert-dwelling Arabs, incapable of any scientific mode of thinking, and only when they came in contact with the neighbouring Sasanian (Iranian) and Byzantine (Roman) civilisations, were they exposed to the majestic works of the Greek intellectuals including Prolemy, Plotinus and Aristotle
The second misgiving is the supposition that the Muslim scientific consciousness somehow triggered woke up from dark languishing slumber in the early Abbasid period (750 to 900 CE), but there was nothing inherent in the Islamic belief system or in the uniquely Muslim culture that could instigate such a complete reawakening. In other words, the impetus was all foreign. Allama Iqbal in his lecture ‘The Spirit of Muslim Culture’ included in the ‘Reconstruction’ has also briefly addressed the naturalization of ancient and Greek sciences into the Muslim scientific spirit and the kind of value-addition they performed. According to the poet-philosopher, science flourishing in the Islamic civilization marked an all-out revolt against Greek thought. In the book Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance (reviewed in Books and Authors, Jan 13, 2008), George Saliba also shows with several historical evidences that the unique juridical requirements of the Islamic fiqh provided the main thrust to the development of the exact sciences. For example, the complicated inheritance laws gave birth to the discipline of algebra; advanced computations of zakat and the jizya resulted in the maturing of the numerical and fractional sciences; and the requirements for prayer directions and timings laid the foundations for theoretical and observational astronomy, radically changing the theoretical models proposed by Ptolemy. One could note that this model of religion enriching science works not only in the Islamic, but also in other contexts. For example, Babylonians, in a need to predict the appearance of different celestial phenomena as omens started developing mathematical astronomy around 2000 BCE and devised accurate tables around 500 BCE.
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