Science under Islam: A Reflection on Past Brilliancy and Future Revival

by Salim Ayduz Published on: 17th January 2008

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This is a review of a book by Sayyed Misbah Deen, Emeritus Professor of Computer Science (Keele University), describing the adventure of science and technology in Islam from four standpoints: the rise of science and technology in the Islamic Golden Age.

Figure 1: Front cover of Science Under Islam: Rise, Decline and Revival, by Sayyed Misbah Deen. (Source).

Review of Science Under Islam: Rise, Decline and Revival, by Sayyed Misbah Deen, Lulu edition, 2007, Paperback, ISBN-13: 9781847999429. 278 pages, 6.14″ x 9.21″.

In his book published in 2007, Sayyed Misbah Deen, Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Keele, describes the adventure of science and technology in Islam from four standpoints: the rise of science and technology in the Islamic Golden Age, the causes that led to its later decline, the later attempts for its revival and finally a discussion of social and religious reformation needed to implement a strong basis for science and technology in contemporary Muslim societies.

It is argued that without such a social and religious reformation, Muslims (a quarter of the earth’s population) would be less able to participate in the science-driven 21st century world. The book appeals to Muslims everywhere in the world to address such an essential reformation. The author stresses that without it, Muslims as a people will remain in a limbo and thus continue to be vulnerable in the modern world. Despite its brilliant overall claim, the book suffers however from various methodological shortcomings and from a general weakness of its scholarly basis. Some examples of these shortcomings are listed below in the following review.

The book has three main parts:

1. Historical background,

2. Rise of science under Islam,

3. Examination of success and decline.

The author explains his aim in writing this book at the beginning of the essay. He says: “The book is intended for anyone interested in finding out the extent to which science was developed under Islam, the sublime height it reached, and how and why it declined. It also discusses how the spirit of science can perhaps be rekindled among the modern Muslims, backed with a rational religious attitude, as advocated by many Muslim scholars over recent centuries”. At the beginning of his analysis, the author relates a story which was narrated by one of his teachers, the only Muslim Nobel Prize of physics winner, the Pakistani scholar Abdu Al-Salam. According to the story: “The clock in a main mosque in Istanbul broke down, which could be repaired only by a Christian mechanic. The question was how a Christian could be allowed to enter a holy mosque. Then a much-needed fatwa [religious decree] was produced: since the entry of a monkey does not defile a mosque and since a Christian is no better than a monkey, he can be allowed to enter the mosque to repair the clock!” According to the author, this behaviour was a general Ottoman and Turkish attitude towards science and technology in the later centuries after the fall of the Islamic scientific tradition. Actually, the author produced no evidence on the reality of this event nor did he quote the source upon which he relied in narrating it. In fact, what interests him, together with the authority on which be backs his discourse, Professor Abdu Al-Salam, is to explain that this negative attitude to science and technology in some periods of the Muslim history, is still persistent now. An intellectual reader of this book, of course, would expect the source of this narration. Even for a scholar working on the history of the Ottoman science and technology, it is hard to find the source of such a tale. On the contrary, the Ottomans’ attitude to science and technology was far more open than what the author described. It also seems to contradict the well-known tolerance of other religions and ethnic minorities who lived in Ottoman lands.

The book begins by recapturing the long history of science in Islam from its emergence until its later decline. In Chapter 1, conceived as an introduction, the author explains the roots of the Golden Age of the Islamic Science. The place of the Quran and Hadiths on science and knowledge was decisive for the new age, which often exhorts Muslims to seek knowledge and to ponder upon the mystery of God’s creation, the universe and its content. In this chapter, the author mentions the spirit of the Abbasids and, in particular, the Caliph al-Ma’mun’s dreams concerning his scientific activities during his reign. After mentioning the political expansion of the Muslim domains especially under the Umayyad period, the author gives information on the plight of science in Ancient Christendom and how Muslims met with science and technologies of the Greek and other civilizations. In this section, there is a brief description on how the orthodoxy in the ancient Christian empires forced their scientists and philosophers to take refuge in the Middle East, and thus paved the way for the cultivation of science under Islam.

The second chapter presents the political and religious progress, which took place in the early history of Islam, tracing its rise from the birth of the Prophet until the destruction of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols. In this chapter, parallel events are accounted for in Iran, Egypt and Spain. Due to their irrelevance to the development of Islamic science, the Crusades have been excluded from this chapter. Yet the negative impact of the Crusades is well known, as they had delivered a devastating blow to progress in the Middle East. The golden age of Muslims started with the Abbasids. This is why the book stresses on the Abbasid rulers’ reign and their personal contribution to the ignition of the Islamic Golden Age. A special focus is laid especially on the roles of the Caliphs al-Ma’mun, al-Mansur and Harun al-Rashid. Religious conflicts and political preferences of the Caliphs in the early years were very effective on the scientific activities and the author expresses the relations between them and religious leaders and scholars (‘ulama). The affection of the Mutazili doctrine upon the scientific studies is analyzed in this chapter and is continued in the next one. A special interest is devoted to the Mutazili doctrine of Khalq al-Qur’an (the Creation of the Quran) that was particularly unacceptable to a part of the orthodox community of scholars. The debates on this issue took the form of a real ideological battle that was decided by an autocratic decree taken around 850. However, the author states that the under the influence of the Mutazili doctrines, there was a decisive push in setting the roots of intellectual creativity in Islam in later centuries through developments in arts, literature, philosophy, and science.

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Figure 2: Al-Farabi’s manuscript for eight-string luth (‘ud), discovered by Naseer Shamma. (Source).

In S. M. Deen’s analysis, Muslim backwardness goes back to the fatal combat lost by rational thinkers in the middle of the 9th century. He states: “After the fall of the Mutazilites the pro-hadith ulama, inspired by earlier works of Imam Shafi’i, developed an Islamic theology and Sharia law based on the strict orthodox interpretation of the Quran and hadiths, proudly denouncing rationalism”.

The second part is dedicated to the “Rise of Science under Islam”. It contains four chapters respectively on mathematics, astronomy, medicine and other sciences. Each chapter gives detailed narratives on the contribution of Muslims in these sciences, together with many pure scientific figures and mathematical formulas to show what Muslim scholars invented and contributed to the modern science throughout history. Giving some comparative examples, he explains how early Muslim scholars’ studies were plagiarized in later centuries without referring to them. He also argues in favour of Ibn Yunus priority, 400 years before Galileo, in the measurement of time by the pendulum. In addition, al-Kutbî produced the first watch. Several other Muslim inventions were also simply listed in this chapter.

The third part of the book entitled “Examination of success and decline” has three sub-titles such as “Causes for decline”, “Greatest Heretics and Their Nemesis”, and “Failures of the later Islamic Empires”. In this part of the book, S. M. Deen examines the causes for the decline of the science in the Muslim world. The author believes that the conservative Caliph Mutawakkil, in support of the orthodox party, drove the first nail in the coffin of knowledge. Since then, Muslims went down; today they became “the weakest” in science in the world, according to a famous statement proffered by Abdus Salam. Attempting to understand the reasons that lie behind the decline of Islamic science, he projects this question on present-day affairs and asks about the reasons that still prevent the Muslims today from developing a community that can thrive in science, as it did in the Golden Age of Islam. The results of his analysis focus on the following scheme:

• Social attitude,

• The nature of the state,

• Higher education,

• Collegiality and dissemination,

• Funding support for science,

• Inadequate Islamic Law.

According to the author, social attitude, which includes the impact of traditional religious law, is the most significant one, particularly since its effect is still crippling the Muslim community. In this chapter, he explains all these reasons in order. Muslim orthodox scholars have been criticised for causing the decline. The Imam al-Ghazzali, who denounced the falsafa (philosophy) practitioners individually as heretics, launched the strong intellectual opposition to the freethinkers. Quoting Fazlur Rahman, S. M. Deen states that “al-Gazzali drew the fatal conclusion that … people should be discouraged from studying even the scientific works of the philosophers”. In another quotation from Akbar Ahmad also, al-Ghazzali has been criticised with the same rigour.

Besides the Imam al-Ghazzali, the author also criticises the later Muslim states, especially the Ottomans and their scholars. He says that through the promotion of a traditional religious attitude, the Ottoman rulers considered science and philosophy as “un-Islamic activities” that had to be stopped. On the political level, this attitude was supported by a symbiotic relationship that existed between the rulers and the religious scholars, the rulers supporting the ulama and the ulama supporting the rulers, as in several Muslim and Arab countries today. This is, he says, why reformation in the world of Islam is so hard.

However, there is no significant focus made in the book on the outer reasons such as Mongol invasion and the crusades in devastating the social and economic setup in the Muslim world and the impact this series of events had on the exercise of science and technology.

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Figure 3: Abu Nasr al-Farabi depicted on a Kazakhstani banknote (one Tenge, 1993). (Source).

In chapter ten, the author mentions the greatest unorthodox scholars and free thinkers, which he calls abusively “heretics”. Under this title, he mentions brilliant scholars such as al-Kindi, al-Razi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Khaldun. In chapter eleven, he focuses on the failures of the later Islamic Empires such as the Mughal Empire in India and the Ottoman Empire, which were great Muslim empires in the world in the late middle ages with Safavid Iran, from the 16th century. Being strong states based on military power, curiously they knew in subsequent centuries that a massive failure to cultivate science would occur, which became progressively in modern Europe a real source of power and prosperity.

Focusing on the Mughal and the Ottoman Empires, he devoted a special interest to the history of the former, giving detailed information. But in the pages on the Ottoman state, there are many factual inaccuracies, such as “Ottoman rule continued for nearly five hundred years” (p. 165) while in reality it was six hundred years. Moreover, the Ottoman dynasty was founded by Osman in 1299 or 1300, not in 1281 (p. 176). The author’s approach to historical facts is generally inaccurate and relies on second-hand secondary literature. Consequently, the author is driven to formulate erroneous claims, such as when he claims that after Suleyman the Magnificent “the army became faction-ridden and failed to equip itself with new weapons or to learn modern techniques of warfare, as the ulama citing the Quran and hadiths opposed all technical innovations” (p. 178). There were of course a few examples, which support his views, but in general this is not a correct interpretation of the Ottomans approach on innovations, especially to new weapons. He also comments concerning the high Ottoman administrative personnel that an Ottoman governor, “once appointed … was free to treat his people anyway he wished” (p. 182). However the author fails to acknowledge that the governors had to consider that the sharia and certain state laws restricted them. All public officials had to abide and obey the laws. The author’s controversial comments are due to a lack of the new and appropriated sources. The references and sources (p. 188-189) which he listed are old and hold insufficient information. There is a need for the author to relate to the latest sources written on the Ottoman science and technology and not just old materials published by the Orientalist European scholars.

In the last part of the book, under the title “Future prospect”, S. M. Deen mentions Muslim rulers and reformers of the last century, and compares their achievements with those of the Western world in the same period. He concludes the chapter with this comment: Modernization cannot be forced from the top without some fundamental changes in the nature of the society, and a God-less creed would not succeed in Muslim countries. Moreover, he repeats again the necessity of reformation in the Muslim world, saying, “The reform has to be channelled through religious reformation, for which we need our reformist scholars.” In the last paragraph of the book, he goes back again to this appeal of reform: “it is important to make a start, sooner rather than later, on the long road to a science-based Muslim society, supported by an Islamic reformation movement, which includes forward-looking reformist scholars and lay people, who believe in this imperative.”

In conclusion, it can be claimed that this book is not the recommended source for general information on the history of Islamic science, technology and civilization. Some of the views of the author will generate the debate amongst scholars working on the Golden Age of Muslim civilisation and the place of Muslims in the modern world. However, this study addresses a real need to debate on the status of science and technology in the present Muslim world.

The author:

Born in Bangladesh in 1938, he got his PhD in 1965 from Imperial College (London) in Particle Physics, in which he had carried out research for a number of years, before joining the University of Aberdeen as a lecturer in Computer Science in 1973. Later he moved to the University of Keele as a Professor of Computer Science, retiring there in 2005 as Emeritus Professor. This book Science Under Islam is his first work on such a topic, propelled by his interest in science, his concern at the current Muslim weakness in science, and his desire to see Muslims flourish in science (and technology), as they once did in the past.

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