Professor Roshdi Rashed: Promoting Science-based Cultural Dialogue among Civilizations

by Roshdi Rashed Published on: 11th November 2008

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Text of the Lecture of Professor Roshdi Rashed in the Conference Muslim Heritage in our World: Social Cohesion marking the 1001 Inventions Exhibition at the House of Parliament, 15th of October 2008, Church House, London, UK.


by Professor Roshdi RASHED*

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Professor Roshdi Rashed

Text of the Lecture of Professor Roshdi Rashed in the Conference Muslim Heritage in our World: Social Cohesion marking the 1001 Inventions Exhibition at the House of Parliament, 15th of October 2008, Church House, London, UK.

Professor Roshdi Rashed: A Paris based, internationally renowned historian of science who has made many significant contributions to the history of mathematics and science. He has been awarded with many honourable degrees and prizes including the Légion d’Honneur from the President of France for scientific production in 1989, the medal of the International Academy for the History of Sciences (Alexander Koyré Medal) in 1990, then Avicenna Gold Medal from the General Director of UNESCO in 1999, “for his contribution to recognition of Islamic culture as a part of universal scientific heritage and for promoting the dialogue among different cultures.” He has occupied various prestigious positions on the level of international scientific organizations.

Today, the need for dialogue between civilizations no longer reflects a tactical or strategic choice. Instead, it translates a need felt by everyone, and in particular by those who aspire to peace and to prosperity, for a new humanism, based on the knowledge of ourselves and acknowledgement of the other, as both different and equal. In this spirit, it is vitally important to promote the advent of a culture of dialogue, based on science. Such a culture would constitute a sure path to authentic dialogue: that is, an exchange between equal partners, which in-forms, but also forms and trans-forms. In fact, a dialogue which is not animated by the demand for formation and transformation is a mere dialogue of the deaf, or a sum total of monologues. It is not just narrow-minded scientism to recall that the neutrality of science, and the universality of its language, methods, and also of its norms, offer the conditions of possibility for fruitful and rigorous dialogue. In order to approach the ideal dialogue situation, such as can be established on the basis of a scientifically-based culture, what would be required would be a universal political will, and a new education of a “world citizen”. Here, however, – at least for the time being – we cross the border into utopia. Yet nothing prevents us from working to prepare the conditions for this future dialogue, without slipping into utopianism.

We said that true dialogue demands recognition of one’s self and of others. With regard to the question which interests us here, that of a scientifically-based culture, each civilization would have to reflect upon itself, and ask itself about its relations with science, both past and present. In other words, the ambitious question of a culture of dialogue based on science is not, at least for the moment, susceptible of a general response. We must begin by isolating the features which are relevant for each case. Since our meeting is being held here on the occasion of this exhibition concerning Science in Islamic Civilization, I have deliberately chosen to restrict myself to the use of the history of science to promote this scientific culture among young people, as the foundation for dialogue. I shall begin by recalling some features of Islamic culture in its relations with science.

I. In the science of Islamic civilization, beginning at the end of the eighth century, a potentiality of Greek science was brought to fruition: the tendency, in embryonic form among the scholars of Hellenistic antiquity, to transcend the borders of a region and break through the limits of a culture and its traditions, in order to assume the dimensions of a world. It is in the science of Islamic civilization that, for the first time, we see this urge to transcend what is merely local being realized. Although it was international, this science did not assume a universality which was merely logical or epistemological: for it was also historical. Indeed, science in Classical Islam was an effort just as international in its sources as in its developments and prolongations. Although its sources were, to a large extent, Greek, we also find among them writings in Syriac, Nabatean, Sanskrit, Persian, etc. To be sure, these various contributions were not equally important; nevertheless, their multiplicity was essential for the genesis of science in Classical Islam.

Within this new framework, the transmission of results mattered less than the possibility, henceforth offered, to combine scientifically diverse traditions, which were now united within the broad parameters of Islamic civilization. Yet the novelty of this phenomenon was not the simple result of chance encounters, or of the passage, whether regular or unexpected, of caravans and navigators. On the contrary: it was the deliberate result of a massive enterprise of translation of scientific and philosophical texts, undertaken by professionals who were organized into schools and sometimes were rivals; a movement supported by the ruling powers and brought into existence by research itself. In this way, there was born a library of dimensions suitable to the world at the time. Traditions of different languages and origins, henceforth the elements of a single civilization whose scientific language was Arabic, found a way to intersect, and from this reciprocal fecundation arose new methods and sometimes even new disciplines, which were initially unforeseen. To cite only on example: in the ninth century, one could read Ptolemy as well as Brahmagupta, and the new astronomical research of Habash al-Hasib, all in Arabic.

I would like to illustrate very briefly this point through the experience of contemporary historian of science. Every historian of Greek Astronomy has to know the Babylonian legacy to understand the method of calculus and values of observations used by Greek astronomers. On the other hand, if our historian of Astronomy forgets the Almagest as well as Ptolemy’s other books of astronomy, if he neglects at the same time the Persian and Indian Zijs (tables of astronomical values), he will not understand a word of later Arabic astronomy. It is also well known that most important part of Latin Astronomy depends heavily on the translation of Arabic texts. This is true not only for medieval Latin astronomy, but also for Copernicus himself and what is called Astronomical revolution. Recent research has shown that the mathematical edifice of Copernican astronomy could not have been built by simply using mathematical information available in such mathematical and astronomical works as Euclid’s Elements and Ptolemy’s Almagest. He also utilised theorems produced by astronomers working within the Arab world and writing mainly in Arabic. One of the main theorems is now called the Tusi couple, after the famous astronomer and mathematician al-Tusi (d. 1274). The German historian of astronomy Willy Hartner drew attention to the fact that even the geometric points employed in diagram preserved in the Copernican works were labelled identically to the geometric points used in the diagram of al-Tusi, three centuries earlier. In a word, the mathematical models of Copernicus are al-Tusi and Ibn al-Shatir, the fourteenth century astronomer from Damascus. Indeed, there is no talk at this point in Arabic astronomy of Heliocentrism, the concept commonly stressed in Copernicus’ astronomy. Copernicus Heliocentrism is itself stressed at the expense of the mathematical foundations of Copernicus astronomy, that he developed and used before taking the last step of displacing the centre of the Universe from the Earth to the Sun. In mathematical terms, Heliocentrism can be accomplished simply by reversing the direction of the last vector connecting the Earth to the Sun. The rest of the mathematics involved in both types of astronomical systems could then remain the same. That fact was well known to pre-Copernican astronomers, notably to al-Biruni (d. c. 1049). This shift in the Copernican system from the Earth to the Sun made no cosmological sense at the time of Copernicus, particularly because there was no theory of universal gravitation to account for the cosmological viability of such a system. With the same mathematics, and similar observations, astronomers working within the Islamic world could account for the planetary positions just as well as Copernicus. For theses reasons, the most prestigious historian of Astronomy in the second half of the 20th century – Otto Neugebauer – considered Copernicus as the last astronomer of the Maragha School, this school and observatory founded in the 13th century by al-Tusi.

Historians of classical Optics will tell almost the same story. After the translation of the main Greek optical works into Arabic, the discipline itself was transformed and renewed by the 11th century mathematician Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen). The Latin translation of his main work was the science-book for Descartes, Fermat, Huygens, etc.

That was also the case in mathematics – algebra, algebraic geometry, theory of numbers, conics, etc.; as well as in medicine, pharmacology, geography, etc.

What was new with the Islamic civilization, one could read in one and the same language the scientific productions of the ancients, but also all the advanced research of the moderns. The latter was carried out essentially in Arabic, at Samarkand, Tus, and Granada, by way of Baghdad, Cairo, and Palermo…. In Islamic civilization, science became “science on a global scale”. It was no more the science of the East Mediterranean countries, like Hellenistic science. Its language was Arabic, which in turn had assumed a universal aspect; it was no longer the language of a nation, but that of several nations. It was no longer the language of a few disciplines, but that of all branches of knowledge. In this way, paths were opened which had not existed previously, and which facilitated immediate communication between scientific centers scattered from North India and Central Asia to Andalusia. Exchanges between scholars were thus promoted.

II. This “global science” was thus a component of the Islamic state from its origins. If we take away this scientific dimension from Islamic civilization, we can no longer understand anything about it. Science was at the heart of the state: in the mosque (for the determination of hours; algebra for solving problems of succession), in the hospitals (for medicine, pharmacology, ophthalmology, etc.), in the observatories (astronomy, mathematical and astronomical instruments, mathematical geography, etc.), and in the schools. What is more, it is vain to try to understand a large part of writings in the human and social sciences (linguistics, lexicography, some chapters of jurisprudence, philosophy…) if one is not familiar with the mathematical sciences of the time.

III. Let us return to our initial question, concerning the promotion of a scientific culture which might serve as a basis for dialogue. Such a project cannot be realized on the basis of the learning and diffusion of scientific results alone. In order for science to become culture, the scientific spirit must first of all be acquired; in other words, scientific rationality and its norms. Among the means most favorable for this “return” to the scientific spirit and its appropriation, there is, it seems to me, the history of science, when properly understood. If, that is, the history of science is conceived not as a historical novel in which the heroes are scholars whose deeds are scientific conquests, but as the affiliation of scientific structures, the history of science can accomplish several tasks. In the first place, its mobilization will allow young people to discover the scientific dimension of Islamic civilization, buried amid several centuries of neglect. To acquire such a new awareness is, so to speak, already to have travelled half the road towards the promotion of scientific culture. It will allow the neutralization of pernicious theses, such as that of the Occidental nature of the phenomenon of science, or that of the difference in nature which allegedly separates Islamic science from non-Islamic science, etc. The recourse to history will help the diffusion of scientific culture throughout wider sections of the public, via the introduction of the historical facts of science into museums, television programs, etc.

The appeal to history will place the achievements of Islamic civilization within their context as a part of a whole, just as important as the others. It will become apparent that this civilization is what it has never ceased to be: a manifestation of mankind’s rational conquest, throughout seven centuries. Yet such a mobilization of history itself requires research work, so as to discover and restore the scientific innovations of the past. To a large extent, this work remains a pledge for the future, within the hands of State governments.

To conclude: the promotion of a culture of dialogue based on science presupposes the knowledge of rational acquisitions and rational values cultivated during eight centuries by the Islamic civilisation. This is the shortest way and the constructive one reinforcing “intercultural understanding and engagement and interfaith dialogue” associated with “community cohesion” programs. These societal initiatives have to be supplemented with foundational intellectual as well as historical dimensions regarding the transmission and exchange of scientific knowledge between civilizations as cultures, namely Greek, Arabic- Latin intellectual heritage that are shared between the so-called “Orient” and “Occident”.

* Emeritus Director of Research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris, France. Honorary Professor at the University of Tokyo and Emeritus Professor at the University of Mansoura, Egypt.

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