LNL on Islam and Science

The ABC’s Late Night Live yesterday featured an interview with Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy on the state of science in the Muslim world:

The Islamic world was once the unrivalled centre of science and philosophy. The early breakthroughs in optics, astronomy, mathematics and medicine were made by Muslim scholars.

Today, Muslim countries are open to using modern technology, especially in military and commercial areas, but as Pervez Hoodbhoy points out, no major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim world for well over seven centuries now.

What happened? What led to the decline of Islam’s scientific greatness? And what might be done to resurrect it?


#1 Antish on 08.31.07 at 12:49 pm

I don’t know that the Muslim world was ever an unrivalled centre of philospophy.

#2 Ahmad7 on 08.31.07 at 8:26 pm

At the time, Europe was very much restrained from pursuing knowledge in many fields. Actually, many writings from Ancient Greece was translated in the Muslim world. And there were many people who were engaged in writing commentaries on the philosophical literature as well.

It is even said that some writings have only survived up till today because of their preservation by Muslims.

#3 Yakoub on 08.31.07 at 8:35 pm

Erm – this is not quite right, surely. For example, vaccination against smallpox – supposedly a ‘Western’ invention – was taking place within the Islamicate 50 years before its inception in the West. The status of Islamic Medicine was ahead of and remained on par with the West right up to colonialism – when invading Europeans systematically closed Muslim hospitals and medical schools. This notion that Muslim science died seven centuries ago is based on a bogus thesis of Muslim decline (contra, see Hodgson), the spurious belief that Western inventiveness stretched back into the Middle ages (contra, see John M. Hobson) and that somehow it was Muslims who are largely to blame for their civilizational decline rather than the Europeans who showed up 1789+ with guns, greed and a unflinching belief in their own supremacy.

#4 Yakoub on 08.31.07 at 8:39 pm

For the unacknowledged discovery of vaccination within the Islamicate and much else on Muslim medicine and colonialism, see Ziauddin Sardar’s ‘Healing the Multiple Wounds’, in the collection of his essays edited by Inayatullah and Boxwell.

#5 Cinna on 09.02.07 at 1:21 am

Variolation- the deliberate infection of people with attenuated [or so they hoped] smallpox- had existed long before Jenner. However, there were many disadvantages: the need to keep the people who’d been vaccinated isolated, a death rate of 1% to 5% among the people vaccinated and the possibility of spreading other diseases such as syphilis at the same time. The important thing about Jenner’s introduction of cowpox as a substitute for smallpox was that it had none of these problems.
In general, it’s important to distinguish between sceince and technology whan it comes to invention and innovation in history. It was only in the eighteenth century that the connexion between the two- the idea that any new scientific discovery could have technological applications and that it was worth examining technological inventions for their possible scientific significance- became widespread. Until then, with a few exceptions, there was a pretty wide gap between the two.

#6 AU on 09.02.07 at 11:07 am

It’s a bit much to blame Muslim decline on the Europeans. The Ottomans were the ones responsible more than anyone else. They got involved in stupid, wasteful wars that didn’t concern them and were possibly one of the most inept and incompetent economists imaginable. Instead of putting their intellectual energies into science and technology, they focused on innovative ways of taxing people.

#7 Shadower on 09.03.07 at 9:54 pm

The Abbassids and the Ummayyads of Spain strove a lot to encourage such fields and as AU pointed out this was not evident in the times of the Ottomans.

Regardless though you can read of some advances during the times of the Ottomans on muslimheritage.com

It is a great resource for Islamic History in the sciences and philosophy fields.

#8 James on 09.27.07 at 10:58 am

It does seem that the colonial powers get a bit too much of the blame here. A strong a vigorous Ottoman empire would have no problem ejecting Napoleons’ regiments from Egypt. Colonialism was the kicking in of a very rotten door. The French Divisional squares crushed the horseman of Egypt. The Medieval armies of the sultan were no match for the modern conscript armies of Europe.

Somewhere along the line Mediterranean Muslim society hit the snooze alarm and let Europe pass it by. As always the rot started at the top. The Sultans had passed the reigns of power off to others, to viziers and other hangers on. These people became more interested in protecting the status quo, in protecting their own interest. Corruption and self-interest were the by-words of Ottoman mis-rule. The governmental rot had to affect the intellectual sphere.

It is a real mystery why the enlightenment and the scientific revolution passed Islam by. Islam had lied much of the ground work for both. Islam had had a truly awe inspiring thousand year run. For some reason it ran out of steam, it became complacent and incurious. Even today it has a hard time with Modernity.
Modernity did come on the tips of European bayonets, not the best of introductions, so it is understandable that Islam is not on the best of terms with it. Plus Modernity is at best ambivalent to the concerns of religion. Hard-nosed, cynical, materialistic, Modernity is often hostile to the claims of religion. Modernity and it’s handmaidens science and technology often vigorously assault and undermine religious claims. Case in point, Darwinism is much loathed by Islamic, Jewish and Christian Fundamentalists.

How is this conundrum solved? Impossible for a non-Muslim to say. The solution is not with a return to “pure” Islam, or some fictitious glory days of the first followers. The past is prologue, it can teach some valuable lessons, but there have been fundamental changes in our outlook, in our way of living, in our thinking, in the very facts on the ground since the last prophet of god walked the earth.

#9 Cinna on 09.27.07 at 8:58 pm

“It is a real mystery why the enlightenment and the scientific revolution passed Islam by.”

One aspect, it’s widely thought, and Dr. Hoodbhoy agress, was the replacement olf the mutazalites by the asharites as the dominant philosophy in islam. Whereas the mutazlites influenced European thought via philosophers like Bacon and Aquinas islamic philosophy- science was a branch of philosophy then- rejected the rationalism and acceptance of cause and effect essential to science.

I should have said in my earlier post that the other important aspect of European adaptation of inoculation against smallpox was the nineteenth century investigation into how it happened and the application of the same principles to other diseases by Pasteur, Koch and others.

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