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Obama, Islam and Science

Riaz Haq writes this blog to provide information, express his opinions and make comments on wide ranging topics.The subjects include personal activities, education, South Asia and South Asian community activities, regional and international affairs and US politics to financial markets and beyond. For investors interested in South Asia, Riaz has another blog called South Asia Investor at

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Speaking to the Muslim world from Cairo recently, President Barack Hussein Obama talked about the contribution of Islamic civilization to the world of science and discovery. He said, “As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar University — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing.”

As with other parts of the Obama speech, the reference to Muslims' scientific contributions has also become the subject of debate. A prominent critic of Obama's acknowledgment of Islamic contribution is Professor Frank Tipler of Tulane University, America's right-wing scientist and author of "The Physics of Christianity".

Tipler questions Obama's speech in an attempt to diminish the contribution of Muslims by calling them a "conduit" of knowledge from ancient Greeks and dismisses the idea of any Islamic contribution beyond that. The only exception he makes is for Dr. Abdus Salam of Pakistan. Here is how Tipler talks about Salam: "There was one truly great “Muslim” physicist, the Nobel Prize winning Pakistani, Mohammed Abdus Salam. I put “Muslim” in quotes, because Salam belonged to the Ahmadi sect of Islam, a sect that accepts modern science. But in 1974, the Pakistani parliament declared the Ahmadi sect heretical, and its members are currently being persecuted in Pakistan. Contemporary Muslim historians generally do not list Salam as an important Muslim scientist. Had he remained in Pakistan, he quite possibly would have been killed."

The assertion that Muslims or Pakistanis do not take pride in Dr. Salam is patently false. Dr. Pervez Hoodhoy, Chairman of the Physics Dept. at Islamabad University, regards Dr. Salam as his inspiration, as do many other Pakistani scientists.

The claim of Muslims as being mere "conduits" of knowledge has been rejected in "Lost Discoveries" by Dick Teresi. Says Teresi, "Clearly, the Arabs served as a conduit, but the math laid on the doorstep of Renaissance Europe cannot be attributed solely to ancient Greece. It incorporates the accomplishments of Sumer, Babylonia, Egypt, India, China and the far reaches of the Medieval Islamic world.

Tipler's claims are further exposed by Teresi by his description of the work done by Copernicus. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, a Persian Muslim astronomer and mathematician, developed at least one of Copernicus's theorems, now called The Tusi Couple, three hundred years before Copernicus. Copernicus used the theorem without offering any proof or giving credit to al-Tusi. This was pointed out by Kepler, who looked at Copernicus's work before he developed his own elliptical orbits idea.

A second theorem found in Copernican system, called Urdi lemma, was developed by another Muslim scientist Mu'ayyad al-Din al-Urdi, in 1250. Again, Copernicus neither offered proof nor gave credit to al-Urdi. Columbia University's George Saliba believes Copernicus didn't credit him because Muslims were not popular in 16th century Europe, not unlike the situation today.

Tipler completely ignores the great contribution of another giant of science from the Islamic world, Ibn Haitham (Alhazen), who developed the "Scientific Method". Alhazen is also considered the father of modern optics. The ancient Greeks thought our eyes emitted rays, like a laser, which enabled us to see. The first person to explain that light enters the eye, rather than leaving it, was Ibn al-Haitham. He invented the first pin-hole camera after noticing the way light came through a hole in window shutters. The smaller the hole, the better the picture, he worked out, and set up the first Camera Obscura (from the Arab word qamara for a dark or private room). He is also credited with being the first man to shift physics from a philosophical activity to an experimental one.

The fountain pen was invented for the Sultan of Egypt in 953 after he demanded a pen which would not stain his hands or clothes. It held ink in a reservoir and, as with modern pens, fed ink to the nib by a combination of gravity and capillary action.

The algebra as we know today came from the Muslim world. Al Khwarizmi wrote the first book on algebra. The term "algebra" was first used by him. Al Khwarizmi was born about 790 in Baghdad, Iraq, and died about 850.

The word for "Algebra" comes from the Arabic word for "al-jabr" which means "restoration of balance" in both sides of an equation. Algebra was based on previous work from Greeks, Alexandrians in Egypt, and Hindus who had preserved the work from ancient Egyptians and Babylonians.

In the ninth century, al-Khwarizmi wrote one of the first Arabic algebras with both proofs and examples. Because of his work, he is called "the Father of Algebra." Al-Khwarizmi was a Persian born in the eighth century. He converted (changed) Babylonian and Hindu numerals into a workable system that almost anyone could use. He gave the name to his math as "al-jabr" which we know as "algebra".

A Latin translation of al-Khwarizmi's book on algebra appeared in Europe in the 12th century. In the early 13th century the new algebra appeared in the writings of the famous Italian mathematician, Leonardo Fibonacci. So, algebra was brought into Europe from ancient Babylon, Egypt and India by the Arabs and then into Italy.

Tipler appears to part of the campaign to deny credit to Arabs, Persians or Muslim for their significant contributions to humanity. Clearly, he, and others like him, are not happy with Obama's outreach to Muslims. He is simply using the Obama speech to advance his agenda.

Related Links:

Obama Speaks to the Muslim World

Lost Discoveries by Dick Teresi

Physics of Christianity by Frank Tipler

How Islamic Inventors Changed the World

Jinnah's Pakistan Booms Amidst Doom and Gloom


Anonymous said...

The assertion that Muslims or Pakistanis do not take pride in Dr. Salam is patently false.

No kidding. That's why Zia put up an official "Pakistani" candidate for a UN position against Dr Salam. Oh, and that he wasn't given a proper "Muslim" burial. Pakistan has chosen to identify with that intellectual and cultural wasteland called Saudi Arabia. We're seeing the glorious fruits of that association.

As for Barry Obama's eloquent words on "civilizational debt" there's one word to describe that: pandering. Droning on about seminal contributions 1000 years ago amounts to manufacturing the light at the end of the loooong tunnel.

June 10, 2009 11:45 PM

Naveen KS said...

In India Ahmedias are free to profess their version of Islam unlike in Pakistan.

Anyways I would like to bring to ur and other Pakistanis' notice about what Indian Muslims think about Obama's speech.

June 11, 2009 4:55 AM

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