How Islam Won, and Lost, the Lead in Science
October 30, 2001
By DENNIS OVERBYE
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
"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
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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