Myths of Islamic "Sciences" and its history

Last updated on Oct 8, 2007

Posted on Oct 8, 2007

A very interesting blog from Global Politician, Islam, the Greeks and the Scientific Revolution, part 1, by Norwegian blogger Fjordman.

Here he argues that Islam and the Arabs may have transferred knowledge, but they didn’t contribute much of their own to the knowledge base of science.

For example, Fjordman says that it is possible an Arab deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphic writing before Jean-François Champollion in 1822, but even if a 9th century Arab alchemist did decipher hieroglyphs, the discovery wasn’t followed up.

Even what the world calls the Arabic numerals are really Indian (as we in India always knew), but passed to the West by the Arabs.

He talks of Al-Razi, as an exception of high calibre.  A physician, who could be one of the best at all time.  But what he said did not ring true with the Islamists of his time:

Al-Razi was a talented Persian physician and chemist who lived in the ninth and early tenth century. He combined Greek, Indian and Persian traditions, and relied on clinical observance of patients in the Hippocratic tradition. He also commented, and criticized, the works of philosophers such as Aristotle. Some of his writings were translated into Latin. As Ibn Warraq writes in his book Why I Am Not a Muslim, “Perhaps the greatest freethinker in the whole of Islam was al-Razi, the Rhazes of Medieval Europe (or Razis of Chaucer), where his prestige and authority remained unchallenged until the seventeenth century. Meyerhof also calls him the ‘greatest physician of the Islamic world and one of the great physicians of all time.'” He was also highly critical of Islamic doctrines, and considered the Koran to be an assorted mixture of “absurd and inconsistent fables.” Moreover, “His heretical writings, significantly, have not survived and were not widely read; nonetheless, they are witness to a remarkably tolerant culture and society – a tolerance lacking in other periods and places.”

He differentiates between the Western Sciences and Islamic version of scientific learning.  However he makes a mistake of saying that “University” is a European contribution to the mankind.  It is not!  Nalanda in 500 BC was the first one – set up in India.  This was the first formal university.  However, it was common to have many “Ashrams” in India where many Sages – who gave scientific and philosophical learnings to the students used it like modern day boarding schools.

Science was viewed as Islamic science, the study of the Koran, the hadith, Arab history etc. The Islamic madrasa was not concerned with a process of reason-based investigation or unrestrained enquiry but with a learning process in the sacral sense. Tibi believes it is thus incorrect to call institutions such as Al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt, the highest institution of learning in Sunni Islam, a university: “Some Islamic historians wrongly translate the term madrasa as university. This is plainly incorrect: If we understand a university as universitas litterarum, or consider, without the bias of Eurocentrism, the cast of the universitas magistrorum of the thirteenth century in Paris, we are bound to recognise that the university as a seat for free and unrestrained enquiry based on reason, is a European innovation in the history of mankind.”

Finally, Fjordman tries to analyze the reasons for the lack of scientific thought in Islamic societies.  He interestingly links it to the very method of “learning” (rather memorizing) Quran.  There is no discussion in that atmosphere.  It is memorized by heart without questioning!

According to Bassam Tibi, the situation has changed less than one might think: “In Muslim societies, where higher institutions of learning have a deeply rooted procedure of rote-learning, the content of positive sciences adopted from Europe is treated in a similar fashion. Verses of the Koran are learned by heart because they are infallible and not to be enquired into. Immanuel Kant’s Critiques or David Hume’s Enquiry, now available in Arabic translation, are learned by heart in a similar manner and not conceived of in terms of their nature as problem-oriented enquiries.” As a result, “In contrast to the European and the US-model, students educated in a traditional Islamic institution of learning neither have a Bildung (general education) nor an Ausbildung (training).”

Another issue is lack of individual liberty – which according to Fjordman should lie between the Arabic/Persian lack of individuality and Ayn Rand’s version of individualistic freedom.

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