This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
Prof. Rashed’s talk focused on the “turning points” in the history of Islamic mathematics, attempting to show that there were what today we would call “paradigms shifts”, though the speaker refrained from using this expression. Algebra is a clear and strong case in point: a new analytical approach that was both algorithmic and demonstrative was introduced. Rashed showed how strong and fruitful this new mathematics was, although unfortunately it was hardly appreciated for its worth or used to its fullest power in the following centuries. The speaker also insisted that the detailed history of this new approach, from its inception to its full-scale development and deployment later in the west, has yet to be fully written. Likewise, though not as strikingly, for branches such as spherical geometry and geometric transformations, in which Muslim mathematicians turned geometry into a dynamic concept, not just studying the relations within shapes but more importantly realizing that relations “between” shapes could be studied, what today we would call “mapping”.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently took part in the 18th Conference of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences (IAS), which was followed by the 9th Doha Interfaith Conference. The first one was on the theme: “The Islamic World and the West: Rebuilding bridges through science and technology”; the second one discussed: “Social Media and Inter-Religious Dialogue: A new relationship”.
One session of the IAS conference was devoted to the history of Islamic science and was quite interesting, with the following talks: “Muslim Contribution and the Turning Points in the History of Classical Mathematics” by Prof. Roshdi Rashed, Emeritus Research Director, National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Center for History of Arabic and Medieval Sciences and Philosophy, University of Paris 7, France; “Discoveries in the Islamic World” by Prof. Ahmed Djebbar, Professor Emeritus, University of Science and Technology, Lille, France; “Unravelling the Mystery of the Decline of Islamic Science: Key Projections on Today’s World” by Prof. George Saliba, Columbia University, USA; and “Ibn al-Haytham’s Contributions to European Civilization” by Prof. Charles Falco, University of Arizona, Tucson, USA.
The four talks were very different from one another.
Prof. Djebbar showed an excellent example of how the history of Islamic science can be turned into a pedagogical tool. Indeed, in France, within a large new science-education program titled “La main à la pâte” (“hands on”), which was introduced and championed by the recently departed French Physics Nobel Prize winner Georges Charpak, a textbook (cover image on the side) and module has been built around a number of “scientific” topics related to discoveries made by Muslim scientists during the golden age. There is a website for this educational project, with a teacher’s folder, showing links to explanations (and more) on each of the discoveries used in the work (e.g. Al-Farisi’s model of the rainbow, Al-Khazini weighing scale, Ibn al-Baytar’s experimental botany and pharmacology, Ibn al-Nafis’s discovery of the pulmonary blood cycle, Al-Jazari’s water pump, etc.), a children’s folder, showing animations for each discovery (e.g. for Al-Farisi’s model of the rainbow), and wiki pages constructed by the children from their research, both experimental and bibliographical.
A truly marvelous educational piece of work.
The textbook has now been translated into English in Malaysia for implementation. The IAS president then pledged to have the textbook and module translated into Arabic.
Prof. Saliba presented his ‘theory’ for the decline of Islamic science. He started by conceding that there was indeed a decline; I think this much is obvious, despite the “decline, what decline?” refrain that we sometimes hear here or there. However, he insisted that it must be dated around the 16th century since, his argument went, we can find great scientists (at least astronomers) up to that era, highlighting Al-Khafri (ca. 1470 - 1550) as proof of the continuation of Islamic astronomy up to the 16th century. In particular, he dismissed “internal” factors, such as the orthodoxy that prevailed after Ghazali (since many great scientists appeared after that) or the Mongol invasion. (This part is not so obvious, but let us put this aside for now.) Saliba then argues that this date corresponds to the simultaneous decline of both the Islamic and the Chinese civilizations and the rise of the European civilization. So, he concludes, the question should not be “what went wrong” in the Islamic civilization, but rather “what went right” in the west?
His answer is then: it is the new wealth acquired in the west from the discovery of America and the opening of new commercial routes around Africa, thus bypassing and marginalizing the Islamic lands and making them lose economic power and hence their ability to conduct science.
In my opinion, this is certainly one important factor that should not be disregarded, but first it is a very late development (decline in most branches of Islamic science began much before), and one still needs to explain the great wealth (and thus a potential ability to do great science) in the Ottoman empire (not to mention others, such as the Mughal empire), how the latter was (were) able to expand huge powers to rule vast lands, build great palaces and infrastructures, while no science of substance was produced for at least four centuries. Saliba also leaves aside important internal factors such as the sorry state and weak status of Islamic universities/madrasas, the near-total absence of democracy and freedom of thought, etc. Of course, this debate is not new; check out Saliba’s famous exchange with Toby Huff.
The last speaker was Charles Falco, who focused solely on Ibn al-Haytham, attempting to show his importance in the history of ideas (scientific, artistic, and even theological) in medieval Europe. I am a great fan of Ibn al-Haytham, but I don’t like exaggerations or extrapolations, and I think it is important to distinguish between Ibn al-Haytham being “influential” and being mentioned (once here and once there, sometimes with difficult-to-recognize spelling and very fuzzy notions) by Chaucer or other medieval writers, or being referred to by some theologian who wants to justify his ideas by using light as an analogy (in some theological concept) and finding “scientific” support in Ibn al-Haytham’s description of light. At the end of his talk, Falco requested financial support for a documentary he is preparing on Ibn al-Haytham.
To sum up, all in all, a great session, very rich and diverse… Indeed, how often does one get to hear such great talks in one afternoon? Too bad the session’s time and format constraints did not allow for any discussion…