Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Al-Kindi and the internationalization of scientific thought in medieval Baghdad

by Salman Hameed

For my class on Science in the Islamic World, we have been reading the fantastic book Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society by Dimitri Gutas. The Translation Movement (750-1000CE) is one of the pivotal episodes in the history of science, along with the pre-Socratic Greeks, and the 17th century Scientific Revolution. Towards the end of the book, Gutas brings up an interesting point and argues that a broader fundamental level, the significance of the translation movement lies in "that it demonstrated for the first time in history that scientific and philosophical thought are international, not bound to a specific language or culture". This is an interesting observation, and fits well with this quote from "the Philosopher of the Arabs", Al-Kindi (801-873CE), about where to find truth:
We ought not to be ashamed of appreciating the truth and of acquiring it wherever it comes form, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from us. For the seeker of truth nothing takes precedence over the truth, and there is no disparagement of the truth, nor belittling either of him who speaks it or of him who conveys it. [The status of] no one is diminished by the truth; rather does the truth ennoble all. 
Hey - that's pretty cool and still very relevant. Gutas points out that this kind of sentiment was not limited to translated sciences. A contemporary of Al-Kindi, Ibn-Qutayba (828-885), expressed a similar opinion about his literary compilation, Choice Narratives:
For the way to Allah is not one nor is all that is good confined to night prayers, continuous fasting, and the knowledge of the lawful and the forbidden. On the contrary, the ways to Him are many and the doors of the good are wide...
Knowledge is the stray camel of the believer; it benefits him regardless from where he takes it: it shall not disparage truth should you hear it from polytheists, nor advice should it be derived from those who harbor hatred; shabby clothes do no injustice to a beautiful woman, nor shells to their pearls, nor its origin from dust to pure gold. Whoever disregards taking the good from its place misses an opportunity, and opportunities are as transient as the clouds...Ibn-Abbas [the Prophet's uncle] said" Take wisdom from whomever you hear it, for the non-wise may utter a wise saying and a bull's eye may be hit by a non-sharpshooter. 
This kind of openness may have been one of the driving forces behind the development of scientific and philosophical culture of the 9th and 10th century Baghdad. If you ever are in a mood for some serious reading, check out Gutas' book. 


salman327 said...

Interesting and thoughtful quotes, especially ibn-Kindi's.

Anonymous said...

Scientific thought is the common heritage of mankind.
(Abdus Salam)
Source: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Science