The Myth of Islamic Science

Islamic science? – forget it

Early Islamic science could have developed to the extent it did only because it absorbed part of the Greek classical tradition between the eighth and tenth centuries. However Islam was, and is, fundamentally incompatible with the Greek tradition, and a larger infusion of Greek rationalism would have destroyed Islam.

In fact, strictly speaking, there was no such thing as ‘Islamic Science’ or ‘Islamic Philosophy’ or even ‘Islamic Civilisation.’ It was not because of Islam but despite Islam that science grew for a while in the early Islamic world.

What we know as ‘Islamic science’ was actually discouraged by Islam. The most significant achievements in mathematics and medical science within the Islamic world occurred ‘in areas and in periods where the elites were willing to go beyond and possibly against the basic strains of orthodox thought and feeling.

For many Western scholars, and many Muslims too, the idea of an ‘Islamic philosophy’ is a contradiction in terms. Orthodox Sunni Islam has never welcomed philosophical thought, with its free use of reason. Traditionalists have always been hostile to philosophy, regarding it as a ‘foreign science’ that leads to heresy, doubt and unbelief.

Muslims made a distinction between native or Islamic sciences and foreign sciences. The former consisted of religion (Koranic exegesis, the science of hadith, jurisprudence and scholastic theology) and language (grammar, lexicography, rhetoric and literature). The ‘foreign’ sciences or ‘sciences of the ancients’ were defined as common to all those peoples and religious communities, including mathematics, philosophy, zoology, botany, medicine, astronomy, music, magic, and alchemy among others.

Early Muslim scholars had contributed to perpetuating the ancient sciences but these endeavours were always viewed with suspicion, and with growing hostility in the Middle Ages. The ancient authorities in these sciences were not Muslims, so their works were thought to endanger the faith. Unfettered intellectual inquiry was deemed not only unnecessary but also dangerous. One consequence was the persecution of scientists and philosophers.

Seen from the outside, the suppression of scientific endeavour could only mean an impoverishment of Islamic civilisation, but in the Muslim view there was no loss since this science did not serve an essential purpose. For Muslims scientific research had nothing to give to their community which this community would accept as an essential enrichment of their lives. At best, knowledge for its own sake was meaningless and marks in a stark way the differences between the openness and freedom of Western science and Muslim revelation and tradition. Hence the almost total lack of science or medicine Nobel laureates in the Muslim world today.

Indeed, I could go further and point up the similarities between fourteen centuries of Islamic intellectual stasis brought about by the subsuming of all knowledge under theology and the control of all opinion on all subjects, even the seemingly non-political, under twentieth century totalitarian regimes.

Next time I write I will have something to say about how the totalitarian aspects of Islam are surreptitiously freighted into the very centres of Western learning, our universities.

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