Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Science and Islam: Part 3 - The Power of Doubt

Below are the links to the third and final episode of the BBC series, Science and Islam (see episode 1: Language of Science and episode 2: Empire of Reason). This episode focuses on astronomy and is very well done. It traces the roots of the Copernican revolution - and does a great job of not only explaining Tusi-Couple but of linking it to the work of Copernicus. (For more details, you can also watch George Saliba as part of Hampshire College lecture series on Science & Religion). This episode also brings up the causes of the decline of sciences in the Muslim world - and thankfully does not pin all the blame on the Mongols. Rather it talks about the discovery of the New World in 1492 and the resultant economic boom in Europe as one of the main factors in the shift of scientific power to the West.

The discovery of the New World was indeed a major factor. But why did the Muslim world fail to create and maintain universities (yes - with very few exceptions such as Al-Azhar) from 12-15th centuries? The rejection of the printing press is brought up - but not the fact that this rejection lasted well into the 18th century. And one of the more intriguing questions for me: why didn't science truly develop in the Ottoman empire? After all, the Ottomans were directly competing with the Europeans (so surely they must have been aware of the scientific and technological developments taking place there), they had strong naval presence and access to trading routes in the Mediterranean from 15-17th centuries, the height of their empire coincided in time with European Renaissance and early scientific revolution, and this was a rich and relatively stable empire (weak at the end - but they did last until the early 20th century).

But minor quibbles aside, this episode is very well done. Here are the first 10 minutes of the third episode:

Here are the remaining parts of the this episode: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6. Also of interest, the last five minutes talk about Stem cells research in Iran (see an earlier post about this).


wileysnakeskins said...

Gee, could it be possible that islam tends to keep people and populations to the 7th century standard where mohammed created this cult of hate, maiming, murder, honor killing, female sexual mutilation, robbery, pillaging, dihmmitude, and the false prophet's favorite, 'the child molestation of underage females all for the express purpose of making islam and it's sharia law supreme throughout the globe. Science has nothing to do with the backward violence islam is noted for; cutting off the head, cutting hands and feet from opposite sides.

Tom Rees said...

Salman, have you read Toby Huff's book, The Rise of Early Modern Science. He takes a cross-cultural look (China, Islam, Europe), and dissects the facts. One important one he identifies is the legal background.

European law created a system of corporations, which paved the way for universities. These legal structures didn't exist in the other two cultures, which made it very difficult for institutional science to take off.

Salman Hameed said...

Hi Tom,

Yes, I did read Toby Huff's book and liked it very much - and he also talks about the non-standardized education in the Madrassas that failed to materialize into to a common standard. I think he is also right about the legal-university connection. By the way, have you read the exchange between Toby Huff and George Saliba? If not, it is definitely worth a read. The first one is here: Saliba's review of Huff's book, Toby Huff's reply, and then to top it off, Saliba's response to Huff's reply.

By the way, your blog (with a new name, Epiphenom) is wonderful.

Tom Rees said...

Thanks Salim! I've finally got round to reading the Saliba/Huff exchange. It's made heavy going by the descent into rhetoric on both parts. I think part of the difficulty is that they're both right.

Wealth is an essential predisposing factor. But it doesn't seem enough to explain it (for reasons I point out on my blog).

So you also need the institutional a legal framework. A unique factor in Europe is the separation of church and state, made necessary by the the pope vs secular ruler conflict, which came to a head in the 12th century.

There are other factors too. I suspect the invention of the heavy plow had a lot to do with it. This lead to a huge increase in agricultural productivity in the heavy soils of northern Europe - and agricultural surpluses mean you can have people sitting around thinking rather than farming.

Salman Hameed said...

Sorry - I have been slow in postings this week (a grant deadline looming). Regarding Saliba-Huff, yes they both have valid points (and are more or less unwilling to acknowledge the other perspective). When I teach "Science in the Islamic World", I give readings from both Huff and Saliba (his last chapter in his latest book deals with the decline of sciences in the Muslim world), and the class ends up dividing up in half.

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Anonymous said...

I think all religions were and are masters of ignorance and specialised in maintain ignorance and darkness as much they could. The feudal times together with inquisition in the chritian world in considerad the darkest stage of humanity. However some so called westerners (por ignorants) are very busy just criticing the muslims. Howeverrr the advance of astronomy in muslin was so amazing maybe because the science was not brutally persecuted like it was in the times of cristianity in the feudal ages. The fascist cristianity needs to apologised also for these crimes agains humanity