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How the Muslims Saved the West

By Michael Hamilton Morgan

One effort common to some 21st century Christians and Muslims is a desire to overthrow empirical science exemplified in Darwinist evolution and instead try and make science conform to sacred text in the Bible and the Qur’an.

On the Islamic side, The New York Times earlier this year pointed out how many Islamic fundamentalist political theoreticians, including some violent extremists, come from the fields of medicine and the sciences. In the Times’ view, this was a surprise and a contradiction.
I agree that it is a contradiction and not only of the intellectual method of modern science, which is based on experimentation to verify or disprove a thesis -- and then letting the facts lead where they may.

It is also a contradiction of the most intellectually productive period in Islamic history, which was the 750 years from the founding of the caliphates in Baghdad and Cordoba and somewhat later in Cairo until the rise of Europe in 1500.

In my book "Lost History" I argue that the intellectual roots of modern Western mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, physics and medicine rest not only in ancient Greece and Rome and the Renaissance and Enlightenment, but also in the great Muslim cities and cultures. This was not only because the Muslim centers were the wealthiest and most powerful of their time; they were also, at least in their courts and universities, centers of empirical thinking, research, experimentation and fierce questioning of assumptions. This method, while sometimes engendering reaction, was defended by Sunni and Shiite political elites of widely differing theology.

While this intellectual tradition was in part built on the brilliance of the pre-Islamic Middle East, Persia, India, Byzantium and Central Asia, it also found support in certain statements in the Qur’an --- explicit verses about the value of seeking knowledge, and the statement, “The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr”. In the eyes of some, the Qur’an seemed to go even further, making uncanny observations about the orbits of the planets, human reproduction, quarantine against epidemic and the accurate calendar.

By the early 800s, the first Arab Muslim philosopher-scientist Al Kindi had appeared in Iraq. As he went about his experiments in chemistry and pharmacology, he made the statement that “We ought not be embarrassed about appreciating the truth and obtaining it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from us.” His chemist contemporary Jabir said that only experimentation would yield the truth.

By 1000, optical theorist Ibn Al Haytham was skipping out on political-theological debates in Basra and Cairo in order to do his own inquiry into the structure of the human eyeball, the nature of light, the mathematical explanation of twilight, and the construction of the first camera obscura 500 years before Leonardo Da Vinci. This willingness to question assumptions reached its flower in the poet-mathematician Omar Khayyam in Isfahan in 1100, when he made the radical statement that God does not intervene in the physical world.

While some of these thinkers were accused of heresy or apostasy, it was merely a precursor to Galileo’s trial before the Church 500 years later; no offending Islamic science books were ever burned, even if they were judged theologically dubious. What the Muslim thinkers and their patrons shared, often unspoken, was a belief not only in the social benefits of assimilating new ideas, questioning assumptions and putting theories to the test – but also a very modern view of the relationship between science and faith.

What they seem to have shared with our own “theist” founding fathers and many European Enlightenment thinkers, was a belief that God and the universe were infinitely complicated and possibly unknowable creations, masterworks that could only be glimpsed in the complexities of numbers, of stars, and of physical processes. They believed that divine truth might be glimpsed by studying physical reality, and not the reverse.

"Lost History" shows how these great forgotten empirical thinkers of Islam helped lay the foundation for the rise of Europe and the West, and today’s global digital civilization. Whether good or bad, virtually all of today’s science, technology, medicine and all the material benefits that accrue from it has its roots in the empirical method. This method, which we know as modern science, was first articulated by the Greeks, carried to full flower by the Muslims, and then passed on to Europe to complete the modern world.

What kind of world would we have today, if early Islamic empirical science had been upended or suppressed by religious and political leaders, rather than becoming their partner?

Michael Hamilton Morgan is the author of "Lost History: the Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists" (National Geographic Books 2007. He is the founder of New Foundations for Peace and the former director of the Pegasus Prize for Literature.

Posted by Michael Hamilton Morgan on October 26, 2007 4:11 PM

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