Monday, October 31, 2011

Doha session on the history of Islamic science

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.
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. 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”.
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…


Gary said...

Sounds like an interesting conference. I wish I was there. One comment I have on the decline of Islamic science though: You mentioned Mughal India and Ottoman Turkey as two economically strong empires whose wealth would shield them from the economic decline caused by the west discovering the Americas and bypassing the Muslim world. Yes they were building great palaces and engaging in other forms of opulent spending. This was not a protection it was the cause of their downfall.

With more money going into grand palaces to please a wealthy and powerful few, investment in science would have declined and competition from the increasing industrial and military might of the west would have delivered the final blow.

A parallel can now be seen in many wealthy western countries. Much of the wealth is held by a tiny fraction of society. Lets call them the "Sultan Class". A lot of their wealth has been generated by moving money around without producing anything. Additionally much of the production capacity has been moved offshore where labour is cheap and regulations non-existent. True the wealthy spend freely but much of that spending is not providing significant return to their country. The same happened in the declining years of the Ottoman caliphate where the rulers' fascination with technology meant most of the spending went to European manufacturers to pay for imported goods.

This concentration of wealth coupled with laws to protect it from most forms of taxation means that there is only a small supply of money for general social use including major public science and technology projects. There is also in America at least a strong anti-Science lobby where fundamentalist Christianity has joined forces with the climate change deniers in big business.

If you look at many western universities and research institutions much of the research is being done by overseas students some of whom eventually take their knowledge and skills back home. This includes to the emerging "tiger" economies of S.E. Asia.

In my lifetime I have seen science and technology emerge from a post-war decline to a sputnik inspired boom only to collapse again as investment in science and science education declined. In my own country entire science faculties have virtually ceased to exist. Highly qualified scientists and researchers have decided that science and research are a path to poverty. I went to school with two of the most brilliant physicists in the country. Both worked at senior levels in major research institutions. One of them at deputy director level. Both realised that they could not have any stability and security in their lives because they were constantly chasing a shrinking funding pool and were at the whim of the shifting sands of politics.

Both are now working in the investment industry using their prodigious mathematical skills to model the behaviour of the share market.

While this has turned into something of a rant against the current decline in science in the west I suspect a closer look will uncover similar trends in the historical Islamic world. It was the wealth and power of the Islamic world and the misuse of that power that was its undoing. Rather than look back into history for a cause maybe we need to apply an old geological dictum: "The present is the key to the past".

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks, Gary; always good to read your comments and views.

Actually, I think that your points don't contradict my (counter-)argument; on the contrary.

I did not say that the wealth of the Ottoman or Mughal empires would have shielded them from decline; I only said that one cannot claim that the discovery of sea commercial routes by the west would have automatically led to the economic decline of the Islamic empires and thus to the drying up of funds for scientific research (and hence to the decline of Islamic science) – because we can clearly find big Islamic empires that were wealthy post-16th century, but that wealth did not translate into scientific progress.

And, taking the argument further, one can then claim that the wrongful spending of that wealth is indeed an internal factor (why didn’t they spend it right?), contrary to what Saliba is claiming.

Gary said...

Thanks Nidhal

I wasn't really disagreeing. The bypassing of Muslim lands by the
west using newly opened trade routes was a factor but as you point out the wealth and the eventual failure of the Ottoman and Mughal empires within about 50 years of each other suggests other internal factors as well were in play.

Needless to say a lack of investment in science would have contributed to poor industrial and technological development. This would leave them poorly prepared to face a newly and rapidly industrialising west.

Not only were they at a disadvantage militarily but in order to modernise they were increasingly dependent on imported good and technology form the west.

From what I understand of the Ottoman investment in railways it was a recognition of the need to modernise but the railways were built and maintained by Germany and there was no transfer of technology to the the caliphate.

Asad M said...

Perhaps the single most important reason or event which is responsible for the stagnation of scientific learning in the Islamic world was that they opposed and resisted the Printing Press. The Ottomans, under Bayezid II in late 15th century, outlawed printing in Arabic and Turkic on the grounds that it would be sacrilegious to use the Arabic or Turkic languages in mechanical equipment. The ban would not be lifted before 1729.

Similarly, Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605AD) and his ministers, when showed the pages produced by the printing press by a delegation of royal Portuguese missionaries, are reported to have shown a total lack of interest because they found the printed pages as unattractive as compared to calligraphic writing. Printing was finally introduced to India by the British in late 18th century.

Muslim countries are even regarded as a barrier to the passage of printing from China to the West, though there is little direct evidence of that.

On the other hand in the Western world, printing, ever since Gutenberg’s invention in 1450 of the Movable Type, gave a broader range of readers access to scientific knowledge and enabled later generations to build on the intellectual achievements of earlier ones. Printing gave assurance that the work of the Renaissance would last, that what was written would be accessible to all and that all ideas would be preserved.