Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Review: Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance by George Saliba

Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance by George Saliba.
MIT Press: Cambridge, MA and London, UK; 2007.
ISBN: 0-262-19557-7. Hardcover, 315 pages with endnotes, a bibliography and a subject index.

This monograph is a series of lectures which challenge the dominant narrative of the history of science culminating in the European Renaissance. The dominant narrative is that Muslim rulers in the early Abbasid period, under the influence of the Mu'tazila theological school (aka rationalists), sponsored a translation of Persian, Indian and Greek scientific and philosophical texts. When the ahl al-hadith theologians (aka irrationalists), who in large part adopted the Asha`ari theology and who are most identified later with Imam al-Ghazali, persuaded later Abbasi rulers to cease sponsoring rationalist theology, scientific production began to decline. Finally, the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258 CE combined with religious hostility to science to cement cessation of scientific thought and production throughout Muslim lands. In key contact points, such as Sicily and al-Andalus, Europeans were able to reacquire the Greek scientific and philosophical legacy which had been faithfully transmitted by Muslims, and these Europeans later used this legacy to develop the Renaissance. In short, Muslims were a storage facility for Europeans' intellectual property, supplemented with unclaimed items left by the ancient Indians and Persians, until the Europeans could complete renovations.

Professor George challenges this narrative at the following points:
  • Scientific activity among Muslims and others in the areas Muslims ruled began during the period of the Bani Umayyah when the ruler `Abd al-Malik ordered the state administration to use Arabic rather than Syriac and Persian. Scientific activity was the result of competition for a more efficient bureaucracy among the educated Arabic-speaking Muslims, Syriac speakers and Persian speakers. This persisted through the ascension to power of Bani al-`Abbas. Rulers' sponsorship of scholars was not the main force for scientific activity.
  • Byzantine science was not the source of scientific knowledge. Science was too far in decline in Byzantine-ruled areas. Scientists in Muslim-ruled areas used ancient Greek sources to supplement their scientific production.
  • Despite an attachment to an Aristotelian cosmology, scientists quickly discovered errors in the ancient Greek sources. In fact, as they translated them, they corrected them to correspond to their own astronomical observations and mathematical advances. In particular, by the 13th century, no serious astronomer wrote without challenging ancient Greek sources like Ptolemy's Almagest, and many advocated different mathematical models to predict the motions of the planets and stars. Furthermore, new instruments and observational methods were developed.
  • Most of the scientists were religious functionaries as well. Religion's main impact on astronomy was to force its separation from astrology and to compel attempts to harmonize Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemian physics. Theology compelled astronomers to deny the universe's objects divine attributes, and thus their motions had to be explained according to the mathematical laws of their models. In short, theology did not obstruct science.
  • While more research is needed, it is likely that Renaissance Europe pursued the knowledge contained in the astronomy books written in Arabic in the 13th century and that Europeans studied these books in Arabic and that Copernicus himself had access, through someone knowledgeable in Arabic, to the advances made by astronomers in Muslim-ruled areas in the 11th through 13th centuries CE.
  • The so-called age of decline in Muslim-ruled countries after the 13th century is filled with scientific production and advances. It was a decline only relative to the Europeans' tremendous advances brought about through their interactions with the Americas.
Although Muzaffar Iqbal's review in Islam & Science (Volume 7, No 1, Summer 2009) criticizes the book for its pushing the analysis of the rise of the "ancient sciences" without enough evidence and for reiterating the revisionist perspective which serious scholars have adopted for decades, even he admits that the book brings coherence "to the revisionist narrative scattered across various papers and books over the last few decades ..." For me, and for most readers of this blog, this book is the simplest way to access this debate in the history of science, and it is an effective response to the continuing Western exceptionalist narrative.