How Islam Won, and Lost, the Lead in Science


October 30, 2001







Nasir al-Din al-Tusi was still a young man when the

Assassins made him an offer he couldn't refuse.


His hometown had been devastated by Mongol armies, and so,

early in the 13th century, al-Tusi, a promising astronomer

and philosopher, came to dwell in the legendary fortress

city of Alamut in the mountains of northern Persia.


He lived among a heretical and secretive sect of Shiite

Muslims, whose members practiced political murder as a

tactic and were dubbed hashishinn, legend has it, because

of their use of hashish.


Although al-Tusi later said he had been held in Alamut

against his will, the library there was renowned for its

excellence, and al-Tusi thrived there, publishing works on

astronomy, ethics, mathematics and philosophy that marked

him as one of the great intellectuals of his age.


But when the armies of Halagu, the grandson of Genghis

Khan, massed outside the city in 1256, al-Tusi had little

trouble deciding where his loyalties lay. He joined Halagu

and accompanied him to Baghdad, which fell in 1258. The

grateful Halagu built him an observatory at Maragha, in

what is now northwestern Iran.


Al-Tusi's deftness and ideological flexibility in pursuit

of the resources to do science paid off. The road to modern

astronomy, scholars say, leads through the work that he and

his followers performed at Maragha and Alamut in the 13th

and 14th centuries. It is a road that winds from Athens to

Alexandria, Baghdad, Damascus and Córdoba, through the

palaces of caliphs and the basement laboratories of

alchemists, and it was traveled not just by astronomy but

by all science.


Commanded by the Koran to seek knowledge and read nature

for signs of the Creator, and inspired by a treasure trove

of ancient Greek learning, Muslims created a society that

in the Middle Ages was the scientific center of the world.

The Arabic language was synonymous with learning and

science for 500 hundred years, a golden age that can count

among its credits the precursors to modern universities,

algebra, the names of the stars and even the notion of

science as an empirical inquiry.


"Nothing in Europe could hold a candle to what was going on

in the Islamic world until about 1600," said Dr. Jamil

Ragep, a professor of the history of science at the

University of Oklahoma.


It was the infusion of this knowledge into Western Europe,

historians say, that fueled the Renaissance and the

scientific revolution.


"Civilizations don't just clash," said Dr. Abdelhamid

Sabra, a retired professor of the history of Arabic science

who taught at Harvard. "They can learn from each other.

Islam is a good example of that." The intellectual meeting

of Arabia and Greece was one of the greatest events in

history, he said. "Its scale and consequences are enormous,

not just for Islam but for Europe and the world."


But historians say they still know very little about this

golden age. Few of the major scientific works from that era

have been translated from Arabic, and thousands of

manuscripts have never even been read by modern scholars.

Dr. Sabra characterizes the history of Islamic science as a

field that "hasn't even begun yet."


Islam's rich intellectual history, scholars are at pains

and seem saddened and embarrassed to point out, belies the

image cast by recent world events. Traditionally, Islam has

encouraged science and learning. "There is no conflict

between Islam and science," said Dr. Osman Bakar of the

Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown.


"Knowledge is part of the creed," added Dr. Farouk El-Baz,

a geologist at Boston University, who was science adviser

to President Anwar el- Sadat of Egypt. "When you know more,

you see more evidence of God."


So the notion that modern Islamic science is now considered

"abysmal," as Abdus Salam, the first Muslim to win a Nobel

Prize in Physics, once put it, haunts Eastern scholars.

"Muslims have a kind of nostalgia for the past, when they

could contend that they were the dominant cultivators of

science," Dr. Bakar said. The relation between science and

religion has generated much debate in the Islamic world, he

and other scholars said. Some scientists and historians

call for an "Islamic science" informed by spiritual values

they say Western science ignores, but others argue that a

religious conservatism in the East has dampened the

skeptical spirit necessary for good science.


The Golden Age


When Muhammad's armies swept out from the

Arabian peninsula in the seventh and eighth centuries,

annexing territory from Spain to Persia, they also annexed

the works of Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Pythagoras,

Archimedes, Hippocrates and other Greek thinkers.


Hellenistic culture had been spread eastward by the armies

of Alexander the Great and by religious minorities,

including various Christian sects, according to Dr. David

Lindberg, a medieval science historian at the University of



The largely illiterate Muslim conquerors turned to the

local intelligentsia to help them govern, Dr. Lindberg

said. In the process, he said, they absorbed Greek learning

that had yet to be transmitted to the West in a serious

way, or even translated into Latin. "The West had a thin

version of Greek knowledge," Dr. Lindberg said. "The East

had it all."


In ninth-century Baghdad the Caliph Abu al-Abbas al-Mamun

set up an institute, the House of Wisdom, to translate

manuscripts. Among the first works rendered into Arabic was

the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy's "Great Work," which

described a universe in which the Sun, Moon, planets and

stars revolved around Earth; Al-Magest, as the work was

known to Arabic scholars, became the basis for cosmology

for the next 500 years.


Jews, Christians and Muslims all participated in this

flowering of science, art, medicine and philosophy, which

endured for at least 500 years and spread from Spain to

Persia. Its height, historians say, was in the 10th and

11th centuries when three great thinkers strode the East:

Abu Ali al- Hasan ibn al-Haytham, also known as Alhazen;

Abu Rayham Muhammad al-Biruni; and Abu Ali al-Hussein Ibn

Sina, also known as Avicenna.


Al-Haytham, born in Iraq in 965, experimented with light

and vision, laying the foundation for modern optics and for

the notion that science should be based on experiment as

well as on philosophical arguments. "He ranks with

Archimedes, Kepler and Newton as a great mathematical

scientist," said Dr. Lindberg.


The mathematician, astronomer and geographer al-Biruni,

born in what is now part of Uzbekistan in 973, wrote some

146 works totaling 13,000 pages, including a vast

sociological and geographical study of India.


Ibn Sina was a physician and philosopher born near Bukhara

(now in Uzbekistan) in 981. He compiled a million-word

medical encyclopedia, the Canons of Medicine, that was used

as a textbook in parts of the West until the 17th century.


Scholars say science found such favor in medieval Islam

for several reasons. Part of the allure was mystical; it

was another way to experience the unity of creation that

was the central message of Islam.


"Anyone who studies anatomy will increase his faith in the

omnipotence and oneness of God the Almighty," goes a saying

often attributed to Abul-Walid Muhammad Ibn Rushd, also

known as Averroes, a 13th-century anatomist and



Knocking on Heaven's Door


Another reason is that Islam is one of the few religions in

human history in which scientific procedures are necessary

for religious ritual, Dr. David King, a historian of

science at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt,

pointed out in his book "Astronomy in the Service of

Islam," published in 1993. Arabs had always been

knowledgeable about the stars and used them to navigate the

desert, but Islam raised the stakes for astronomy.


The requirement that Muslims face in the direction of Mecca

when they pray, for example, required knowledge of the size

and shape of the Earth. The best astronomical minds of the

Muslim world tackled the job of producing tables or

diagrams by which the qibla, or sacred directions, could be

found from any point in the Islamic world. Their efforts

rose to a precision far beyond the needs of the peasants

who would use them, noted Dr. King.


Astronomers at the Samarkand observatory, which was founded

about 1420 by the ruler Ulugh Beg, measured star positions

to a fraction of a degree, said Dr. El-Baz.


Islamic astronomy reached its zenith, at least from the

Western perspective, in the 13th and 14th centuries, when

al-Tusi and his successors pushed against the limits of the

Ptolemaic world view that had ruled for a millennium.


According to the philosophers, celestial bodies were

supposed to move in circles at uniform speeds. But the

beauty of Ptolemy's attempt to explain the very ununiform

motions of planets and the Sun as seen from Earth was

marred by corrections like orbits within orbits, known as

epicycles, and geometrical modifications.


Al-Tusi found a way to restore most of the symmetry to

Ptolemy's model by adding pairs of cleverly designed

epicycles to each orbit. Following in al-Tusi's footsteps,

the 14th-century astronomer Ala al-Din Abul-Hasan ibn

al-Shatir had managed to go further and construct a

completely symmetrical model.


Copernicus, who overturned the Ptolemaic universe in 1530

by proposing that the planets revolved around the Sun,

expressed ideas similar to the Muslim astronomers in his

early writings. This has led some historians to suggest

that there is a previously unknown link between Copernicus

and the Islamic astronomers, even though neither ibn al-

Shatir's nor al-Tusi's work is known to have ever been

translated into Latin, and therefore was presumably unknown

in the West.


Dr. Owen Gingerich, an astronomer and historian of

astronomy at Harvard, said he believed that Copernicus

could have developed the ideas independently, but wrote in

Scientific American that the whole idea of criticizing

Ptolemy and reforming his model was part of "the climate of

opinion inherited by the Latin West from Islam."


The Decline of the East


Despite their awareness of

Ptolemy's flaws, Islamic astronomers were a long ways from

throwing out his model: dismissing it would have required a

philosophical as well as cosmological revolution. "In some

ways it was beginning to happen," said Dr. Ragep of the

University of Oklahoma. But the East had no need of

heliocentric models of the universe, said Dr. King of

Frankfurt. All motion being relative, he said, it was

irrelevant for the purposes of Muslim rituals whether the

sun went around the Earth or vice versa.


From the 10th to the 13th century Europeans, especially in

Spain, were translating Arabic works into Hebrew and Latin

"as fast as they could," said Dr. King. The result was a

rebirth of learning that ultimately transformed Western



Why didn't Eastern science go forward as well? "Nobody has

answered that question satisfactorily," said Dr. Sabra of

Harvard. Pressed, historians offer up a constellation of

reasons. Among other things, the Islamic empire began to be

whittled away in the 13th century by Crusaders from the

West and Mongols from the East.


Christians reconquered Spain and its magnificent libraries

in Córdoba and Toledo, full of Arab learning. As a result,

Islamic centers of learning began to lose touch with one

another and with the West, leading to a gradual erosion in

two of the main pillars of science - communication and

financial support.


In the West, science was able to pay for itself in new

technology like the steam engine and to attract financing

from industry, but in the East it remained dependent on the

patronage and curiosity of sultans and caliphs. Further,

the Ottomans, who took over the Arabic lands in the 16th

century, were builders and conquerors, not thinkers, said

Dr. El- Baz of Boston University, and support waned. "You

cannot expect the science to be excellent while the society

is not," he said.


Others argue, however, that Islamic science seems to

decline only when viewed through Western, secular eyes.

"It's possible to live without an industrial revolution if

you have enough camels and food," Dr. King said.


"Why did Muslim science decline?" he said. "That's a very

Western question. It flourished for a thousand years - no

civilization on Earth has flourished that long in that



Islamic Science Wars


Humiliating encounters with Western colonial powers in the

19th century produced a hunger for Western science and

technology, or at least the economic and military power

they could produce, scholars say. Reformers bent on

modernizing Eastern educational systems to include Western

science could argue that Muslims would only be reclaiming

their own, since the West had inherited science from the

Islamic world to begin with.


In some ways these efforts have been very successful. "In

particular countries the science syllabus is quite modern,"

said Dr. Bakar of Georgetown, citing Malaysia, Jordan and

Pakistan, in particular. Even in Saudi Arabia, one of the

most conservative Muslim states, science classes are

conducted in English, Dr. Sabra said.


Nevertheless, science still lags in the Muslim world,

according to Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani physicist and

professor at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, who has

written on Islam and science. According to his own informal

survey, included in his 1991 book "Islam and Science,

Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality,"

Muslims are seriously underrepresented in science,

accounting for fewer than 1 percent of the world's

scientists while they account for almost a fifth of the

world's population. Israel, he reports, has almost twice as

many scientists as the Muslim countries put together.


Among other sociological and economic factors, like the

lack of a middle class, Dr. Hoodbhoy attributes the malaise

of Muslim science to an increasing emphasis over the last

millennium on rote learning based on the Koran.


"The notion that all knowledge is in the Great Text is a

great disincentive to learning," he said. "It's destructive

if we want to create a thinking person, someone who can

analyze, question and create." Dr. Bruno Guideroni, a

Muslim who is an astrophysicist at the National Center for

Scientific Research in Paris, said, "The fundamentalists

criticize science simply because it is Western."


Other scholars said the attitude of conservative Muslims to

science was not so much hostile as schizophrenic, wanting

its benefits but not its world view. "They may use modern

technology, but they don't deal with issues of religion and

science." said Dr. Bakar.


One response to the invasion of Western science, said the

scientists, has been an effort to "Islamicize" science by

portraying the Koran as a source of scientific knowledge.


Dr. Hoodbhoy said such groups had criticized the concept of

cause and effect. Educational guidelines once issued by the

Institute for Policy Studies in Pakistan, for example,

included the recommendation that physical effects not be

related to causes.


For example, it was not Islamic to say that combining

hydrogen and oxygen makes water. "You were supposed to

say," Dr. Hoodbhoy recounted, "that when you bring hydrogen

and oxygen together then by the will of Allah water was



Even Muslims who reject fundamentalism, however, have

expressed doubts about the desirability of following the

Western style of science, saying that it subverts

traditional spiritual values and promotes materialism and



"No science is created in a vacuum," said Dr. Seyyed

Hossein Nasr, a science historian, author, philosopher and

professor of Islamic studies at George Washington

University, during a speech at the Massachusetts Institute

of Technology a few years ago. "Science arose under

particular circumstances in the West with certain

philosophical presumptions about the nature of reality."


Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal, a chemist and the president and founder

of the Center for Islam and Science in Alberta, Canada,

explained: "Modern science doesn't claim to address the

purpose of life; that is outside the domain. In the Islamic

world, purpose is integral, part of that life."


Most working scientists tend to scoff at the notion that

science can be divided into ethnic, religious or any other

kind of flavor. There is only one universe. The process of

asking and answering questions about nature, they say,

eventually erases the particular circumstances from which

those questions arise.


In his book, Dr. Hoodbhoy recounts how Dr. Salam, Dr.

Steven Weinberg, now at the University of Texas, and Dr.

Sheldon Glashow at Harvard, shared the Nobel Prize for

showing that electromagnetism and the so- called weak

nuclear force are different manifestations of a single



Dr. Salam and Dr. Weinberg had devised the same

contribution to that theory independently, he wrote,

despite the fact that Dr. Weinberg is an atheist while Dr.

Salam was a Muslim who prayed regularly and quoted from the

Koran. Dr. Salam confirmed the account in his introduction

to the book, describing himself as "geographically and

ideologically remote" from Dr. Weinberg.


"Science is international," said Dr. El-Baz. "There is no

such thing as Islamic science. Science is like building a

big building, a pyramid. Each person puts up a block. These

blocks have never had a religion. It's irrelevant, the

color of the guy who put up the block."






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