Science in the Golden Age of Islam

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Note: A version of this vignette originally appeared as a topic of discussion in Andalus Book Club.

Those born into Muslim families who had some connection to the tradition have been told from a young age stories about our past glories. Even today, whenever the subject of science and religion comes up, many are very quick to mention how modern science owes its advancements to foundations established by Muslims. While there is some truth to this assertion, it still has problematic presuppositions stemming from not having defined terms and concepts. Modern science and the European Enlightenment approach to it are not synonymous with how Muslims thought of or approached science. If you recall from our reading of The Tao of Islam, Sachiko Murata summed it up quite succinctly in Chapter 1 where she stated:

Many if not most of the Muslim cosmologists studied the outside world in order to bring out what we can learn about God from the qualities present in the visible universe. Few of the Western scholars who have looked at cosmological texts have appreciated this approach. They have been interested mainly in the “history of science,” considering Islamic cosmology as a primitive form of science. This may help explain why so few Muslim scholars have taken Islamic cosmology seriously in the past century. It is usually dismissed as unscientific, or symbolic at best, though few have attempted to investigate in what manner that symbolism might be useful in the contemporary world. Most Muslim scholars, either because of a hereditary literal-mindedness deriving from the juridical tradition or an acquired literal-mindedness stemming from popular scientism, have not looked at cosmology in the way in which it has been taught by the great theoreticians. The study of Islamic cosmology can gain a great deal if we perceive it as built upon a world of images, of qualitative and not quantitative entities, of correspondences and hidden analogies… From the beginning Islamic cosmological thinking has been based on the idea that things are pointers and not of any ultimate significance in themselves.

This abstract idea presented by Murata was put into practical terms by Neil Postman in Chapter 2 of Technopoly where he discusses the application of science, i.e. technology, in terms of how cultures adopt it:

Cultures may be classified into three types: tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies. At the present time, each type may be found somewhere on the planet, although the first is rapidly disappearing: we must travel to exotic places to find a tool-using culture. If we do, it is well to go armed with the knowledge that until the seventeenth century, all cultures were tool-users. There was, of course, considerable variation from one culture to another in the tools that were available. Some had only spears and cooking utensils. Some had water mills and coals- and horsepower.

It is important to point out that whenever the term “tool-using” culture is discussed, it often conjures up an image of a primitive people. This is more a product of how this concept is presented in the popular discourse than it is a necessary reflection or what the term entails. Postman notes that what differentiates the three cultures from each other is not how advanced they were, but how they viewed their relationship with technology:

[T]he main characteristic of all tool-using cultures is that their tools were largely invented to do two things: to solve specific and urgent problems of physical life, such as in the use of waterpower, windmills, and the heavy-wheeled plow; or to serve the symbolic world of art, politics, myth, ritual, and religion, as in the construction of castles and cathedrals and the development of the mechanical clock. In either case, tools did not attack (or, more precisely, were not intended to attack) the dignity and integrity of the culture into which they were introduced. With some exceptions, tools did not prevent people from believing in their traditions, in their God, in their politics, in their methods of education, or in the legitimacy of their social organization. These beliefs, in fact directed the invention of tools and limited the uses to which they were put. Even in the case of military technology, spiritual ideas and social customs acted as controlling forces.

What Postman states here can be readily observed in Muslim history. Many Muslims are eager to point out that algebra was a discipline put together by al-Khwārizmī, but few know that in the introduction to his book on algebra he spends the first few lines praising God and invoking God’s salutations upon the Beloved ﷺ before mentioning that one of the primary reasons for him putting together this work was to help Muslims with calculating their inheritance amounts, which are based on an elaborate inheritance structure outlined in the Quran. He does mention that it was also to facilitate their business transactions and worldly affairs. But the fact that his engagement in this field was as much a religious devotional act as it was an intellectual one cannot be glossed over. Furthermore, this is not a unique case in Islamic history. The Golden Age of Islam was not what some have tried to imagine by projecting modern science and materialist notions of the “rational” onto the past.

There’s a bit more to unpack from the paragraph cited here. Some questions to contend with from it include: What kind of a world would we be living in if we continued on the path of using science as a tool rather than how it is now being imposed as a value system? Would we have climate change and resource exploitation at levels that damage the environment in the ways we witness today? Would we have developments like weapons of mass destruction? Would we be worried about a thermonuclear war? To put these questions in another way, did our loss of a transcendent purpose combine with our need for a value system to bind us together turn us into servants of the tools we developed to serve us?

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For in-depth discussions with Dr. Mohamed Ghilan on books and articles such as the one featured in this Vignette through an Islamic perspective, join Andalus Book Club.

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