Tuesday, January 12, 2010

George Saliba on Islamic Science & European Renaissance

Here is an interview with George Saliba and a summary of his book, Islamic Science and the Making of European Renaissance. Tip for this interview comes from Tabsir. This is a good informative site if you are interested in general issues regarding Islam and the Middle East.

Here is Saliba talking about the practical needs in the Islamic empire driving the early interest in science:

The first two chapters of the book tell the story of the birth of science as a response to the sheer needs of the new empire, and explain why this science flourished; they take account of the competitive conditions that the new empire created. It is all economic, political, to the bone.

Religion remains important. Islam, as a new religion to the empire, spurred also new questions that were never anticipated in the Greek tradition.

For example, as a Muslim, you have to pray, five times a day. And you have to pray in a specific direction to Mecca. Both of those are simple things. But they are very complicated if you take them seriously. Because one of those five prayers is defined by the length of your shadow on the ground. Originally, the time for the afternoon prayer was supposed to commence when your shadow was equal to your height and to terminate when your shadow was equal twice to your height. It was during that range that the afternoon prayer was supposed to be performed. That was good enough in Mecca, and maybe up to Medina. But when you reach Damascus, there will be many times, many days per year when your shadow will never be equal to your height, no matter what time of the day it is. So when do you start prayers?

This very mundane concern triggered a study of shadow lengths at various latitudes. Mathematical geography became then a necessary component of prayers. The minute you go into mathematical geography, you just made a big entry into astronomy. You are learning where is the sun every day of the year, where am I on the globe vis-à-vis the position of the sun, how does the sun cast the shadow, how is the shadow related to my locality. All of those questions are excellent introductions to astronomy. Is there still a question as to why you would need astronomical texts?

And here is the impact on Europe:

The second part of the book deals with the impact of all of this material on Europe.

In the 12th and 13th centuries there was a massive translation movement in Europe, from Arabic into Latin. Traditionally, this is seen as the time when Europe was recapturing its own roots so to speak. It is said that the Greek texts could not be found, that’s why they were translated via Arabic.

But it is not true that those texts could not be found. They were actually found and translated directly from Greek later on, in the 15th and the 16th centuries. The question is, why did they translate them from Arabic when the same text existed in Greek?

The essence of my argument is that the European scientists used the bricks that were already formulated in the Islamic civilization to construct their very own and new science. It does not mean that the Renaissance is not a brilliant renaissance. That is indeed one of the most creative periods in history.

But note that the method of translation changed after the 14th century. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Europeans were no longer treating those Arabic texts in the same way they were treated in the medieval period. Instead of hiring translators, the European scientists learned Arabic themselves.

Indeed, why should one assume that the Renaissance scientists were any less intelligent than our modern scientists? If you ask a contemporary scientist about what was said in physics fifty years ago, the answer would be that all of that is obsolete. Today’s scientists do not read what was written in their fields fifty years ago. They only go for the latest. Why should a Renaissance scientist go for a text written in Ancient Greece a thousand years before, when the same had been discussed, criticized, updated, in the Islamic domain?

Read the full interview here. Also see an earlier post on this last point here: Science vs Humanities in the European Renaissance. Also, if you are interested in watching a lecture by George Saliba on this topic, check out his talk, Islam and the Transformation of Greek Science, as part of our Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion.

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