Muslims and science

Talk to most Pakistani scientists and they will repeat what Muslim scientists all over the world like to revel in: “We were the best in science during the golden age of Iberian Islam. We invented algebra (an Arabic word) and so on.” Such a narrative usually acquires an atavistic self-congratulation harkening back five centuries with little regard for what is happening now and how Muslim countries are far behind most others in scientific accomplishment.

A new book by sociologist of science, Toby Huff, titled Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge University Press) suggests that even the historical accolades which we, Muslims, often give ourselves need to be tempered. Why did some human societies achieve greater scientific accomplishments than others? This is a thorny question in the sociology of science which researchers must approach with great trepidation, given the ease with which any claims to superiority of one intellectual tradition can be conflated with claims of biological determinism. The debate on the salience of ‘intelligence’ in determining the fate of human societies has raged on for decades. Stephen Jay Gould critiqued biological determinism in The Mismeasure of Man. He was in turn criticised for playing to populism rather than science inter alia by Arthur Jensen in The ‘G’ Factor. The crux of the debate in the natural science hinges on the efficacy of methods in positing differences in ability and testing hypotheses about their causes, which are hard to reconcile.

Dr Huff avoids the intractable debates in the natural sciences but makes a case for western dominance in the sciences from a cultural perspective. The book first lays out the evidence for western ascendance in the sciences during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Huff has little patience for those who romanticise oriental equivalence in scientific achievement and convincingly argues how key scientific discoveries, from the laws of planetary motion to anatomical function, were largely a product of occidental science. He further challenges the notion of collective learning through colonialism by noting that much of the West’s colonial ventures in the East began much later in the nineteenth century.

Focusing on Chinese and Islamic societies, the book argues that most consequential knowledge transfer that occurred was in fact from West to East, particularly by Jesuits in China. Distinguishing between the Orient’s engineering prowess from scientific inquiry, Huff suggests that there was a ‘curiosity deficit’ in the Orient which led to scientific stagnation. The book uses a core case study of the invention of the telescope as an example of western scientific superiority. The knowledge of optics which led to this invention and its transfer to the Orient is carefully traced using rigorous historical analysis. Ample allusions to primary texts and illustrations are made alongside critical appraisal of secondary commentaries.

Credit is given to notable inquisitive researchers in Islamic tradition such as Ibn Haytham in optics or Ibn Bajja in the science of motion, but the inability of such stalwarts to create a larger scientific enterprise in their societies, suggests a systemic cultural problem. Original scientific achievements in Islamic tradition largely occurred between the tenth and twelfth centuries when there was indeed a willingness for collective learning and a transmission of Greek texts to Western Europe. Like the Greeks, Muslim contributions to science atrophied and did not lead to historically transformative inventions. Specific debates on Arab scientific influence on the West, such as the impact Nasiruddin al Tusi on Copernicus, are also discussed and convincingly dismissed with clear historiographic analysis.

Muslim scientists should therefore not bask in past glory which is itself historically questionable. We should look towards a brighter future instead. There is indeed a resurgence in Muslim science and many Pakistani scholars are part of it. More are doing pioneering research and willing to engage in critical thinking within their religious purview as well. At the end of the day, the human impulse to question and seek answers must not be quashed by any absolutist ideologies.

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