Al-Huda Foundation, USA

 

the Message Continues ... i 5

 

ISLAMíS CONTRIBUTION TO HUMAN CIVILIZATION: 

SCIENCE AND CULTURE

[By Prof. Osman Bakar]


(Prof. Osman Bakar holds the Malaysia Chair of Islam in Southeast Asia, Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. This is the text of Prof. Baker's speech at the CIC's annual Ottawa dinner, October 15, 2001.)


We all know every religion has a civilization. Every civilization has its ups and downs. A civilizationís best "up" is what scholars often call its golden age. Indeed, every civilization has its golden age.

But it may have several golden ages; a golden age in certain domains of human life in one period of its history, another golden age in other domains, but in a different period. In the case of Islam, its golden age in science, technology and intellectual culture spanned about five centuries, from the ninth until the fourteenth centuries.

This is also the period of Islamís dominance in world science and technology. During this period, Muslims made many important scientific discoveries and technological innovations, contributions to scientific culture, and advancements in intellectual culture in general. These Muslim achievements greatly influenced the European Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the birth of modern science in the 17th century. 

To speak about Islamís gifts to humanity in just half an hour, even confined to science and technology alone, is to do a great injustice to the subject. However, given the fact that the subject is not that well known to many people today, especially in the West, even a glimpse of Islamís major scientific contributions is welcome.

Moreover, given our current global situation when the worldwide focus is on Islam and the West, the subject of my talk tonight may remind us of things that can contribute to a better appreciation of the civilizational significance of Islam to the West in the past and to a healthier climate for a dialogue of civilizations in our contemporary
world.

Bertrand Russell, the famous British philosopher, has rightly claimed, "it was the Arabs who introduced the empirical method" in the study of nature and cultivated it widely when they were leaders of the civilized world. The Greeks, adds Russell, might have been brilliant philosophers, but they were not interested in empirical investigations. In jest, Russell points to Aristotle, who claimed that men have more teeth than women. But that claim was never verified empirically. With two wives, he could have easily counted their teeth and counterchecked with his own. But he was not empirically minded. The scientific method, as it has been developed primarily at the hands of the West, was indeed invented by Muslims and first practiced by them on a large scale.

Muslim scientists then were not only Arabs, but also people of other racial and ethnic groups such as Persians, Indians and even Chinese. Many famous Muslim scientists who were also known and influential in the Latin West, had come from regions in Central and South Asia neighboring Afghanistan, where the focus of the West and indeed the
whole world is now centered. The tenth-century Ibn Sina, or Avicenna as he was known in the West, hailed from Uzbekistan which for centuries was noted for its world-leading centers of intellectual and scientific activity, such as Bukhara and Samarkand.

Ibn Sinaís contemporary, al-Biruni, regarded by many Western authorities as the greatest Muslim scientist of all time, was also born in todayís Uzbekistan. But he spent most of his life in the Indian subcontinent. He knew Afghanistan well. One of his most significant empirical studies was a geological survey of the Ganges Basin in India. This geological study  was to reward him with a theory of the continental shift, centuries
before Western scientists became interested in the idea.

We can go on and on mentioning the names of past  Muslim scientists who were not Arabs. But the West has called them "Arabs" apparently because they had written in Arabic which was, by the way, the international scientific language of the day. Even today, many people in the West identify Islam with the Arabs and the Middle East. True, Islam originated with the Arabs, but gradually it became a global religion and
a global religious community embracing diverse ethnic and cultural groups from as far west as Spain and as far east as Indonesia and China.

Of course the majority of scientists in the western lands of Islam were Arabs, and they were better known in the West. The important point to take note is this. Muslim scientists in both the east and the west had cultivated a novel way of studying the physical and the natural world, namely the scientific method. This method of theirs was modern. It embraced the ideas of quantitative and empirical methods, mathematical
methods, and rational and logical modes of enquiry as these are understood today. Thanks to their discovery and cultivation of this method, Muslim scientists were able to make great progress.

Many of their works became well known and influential in the West through their Latin translations. Many ideas advanced in these works were to have a lasting influence on western thought and culture, although in the course of time their Islamic origin became forgotten. When decades ago the Italian Orientalist, Assendro Baussani, tried to hammer home the point that "Islam is an integral part of western intellectual culture," he was one of the few western voices aware of the historical role of Islam in western civilization.

Very few people in the West today know that Ibn Sinaís best medical work, Canon of Medicine, was taught for centuries in Western universities and was one of the most frequently printed scientific texts in the Renaissance. Likewise, few realize that when the West in the Age of Scholasticism and in the Renaissance wanted to rediscover Plato and Aristotle and the Greek roots of civilization, it could not do so by going back directly to the original Greek sources. It had to depend not only on Muslim translations of the Greek works, but also on Muslim interpreters.

For example, when the famous thirteenth-century theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas wanted to create a new rational theology, he encountered an Arabic Aristotle that had been Islamized. Aquinas saw that Aristotle had found a new home in Islam, so he wanted to seek one in Christianity. Aristotle had come to be accepted as a common heritage of Islam and the West. He is the father of western science, but he is also a founder of Islamic science.

Given the fact that today there are people inclined to believe in an imminent clash of civilizations and the incompatibility between Islam and the West, it is worth reminding ourselves that the two civilizations do share something precious in common, at least in their intellectual heritage. The West takes great pride in modern science as one of the
greatest achievements of its intellect. This western achievement is something no one can deny or belittle. But it wonít be wrong for someone to make the following claim: there would not have been modern science without the Renaissance -- and without Islamic science and philosophy, there would have been no Renaissance!

The success of the future rests on the success of the present, and the success of the present on the success of the past. Take for example one of the twentieth-centuryís greatest scientific and technological feats; the epic journey to the moon and back to earth! That success is of course a triumph of American space science. But scientists of other nations and of earlier times have contributed in one form or another to its development. They have helped to lay the foundation of modern space science.

Again, it is little known that the immediate predecessor of modern space science is medieval Islamic astronomy. From the twelfth century, Muslim astronomers began to criticize the Ptolemaic planetary system. That was a great step forward in the history of astronomy. Islam was noted for its astronomical observatories, which have also developed into modern research canters of planetary science. Indeed, they must be regarded as scientific research institutions in the modern sense, for group research
was emphasized, and theoretical investigations went hand in hand with observations.

The most developed and perhaps the most successful of institutions of this type, scientifically speaking, was the observatory at Maragha in Azerbaijan. Many things can be said about the observatory in support of the contention that Islamic scientific culture had reached a well-developed stage. The observatory had as its director a leading scientist of the day, by the name of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. It engaged in both teaching and research. Although the main line of research there was planetary science, an interdisciplinary approach was emphasized. The scientists working there were of different religious backgrounds and ethnicity, including Chinese. It was the Cape Kennedy of its day. Research findings were published and among the fruits of the Maragha research was a new planetary theory proposed by al-Tusi.

The last achievement of Islamic planetary astronomy in medieval times was a lunar model developed by Ibn al-Shatir from Damascus, based on al-Tusiís theory. Some modern scholars have claimed that Copernicus was acquainted with this development in Islamic space science. In the words of one scholar, "all that is astronomically new in Copernicus can be found essentially in the school of al-Tusi and his students." If that is
so, then Copernicus may be regarded as the link between Islamic planetary science and its modern Western successor. If we are looking for scientists of the past who have contributed to the development of human thought on planetary science, without which manís journey to the moon would have unthinkable, then the names of the Maragha scientists stand to be counted.

In this connection, I would like to stress on the important contribution Islam has made in the institutionalization of science. With state support and patronage by royalty and political rulers, science education and research become institutionalized. Consequently, scientific culture became more entrenched in society. No one can dispute the assertion that institutionalization constitutes a major phase in the development and progress of science. In initiating this particular phase of scientific progress, Islam has made another lasting contribution to world civilization. Research-based astronomical observatories and teachinghospitals were Islamís best-known creations of scientific institutions,paving the way for a more intensified institutionalization of science at
the hands of the modern West. The organization and practices of Muslimhospitals greatly influenced the development of their Westerncounterparts. Clinical practice initiated by Muhammad Zakaria al-Raziearly in the tenth century became an integral component of Islamicmedical practice for centuries before it was widely adopted in the West.

There is another important institution that owes its origin to Islam.This is the university as we know it today. Islam founded the oldest university in the world, the al-Azhar University in Cairo. The first Western universities were modeled after Muslim universities. Many features of Muslim universities came to be adopted by the West, whether
these pertain to the organization of curricula or granting of degrees. Even the tradition of specialized chairs (professorships) owes its origin to Islam.  The famous eleventh/twelfth century al-Ghazzali was the first occupant of the Chair of Shafi'ite Law at the leading Nizamiyyah University in Baghdad, which at that time was the archrival
of al-Azhar. The influence of Islam on the West in the domain of educational culture was indeed immense. However, again here as in many other domains, this is hardly known to contemporary westerners.

You may have noticed that in my lecture I did not dwell on scientific discoveries made by Muslims in the various branches of science such as mathematics, biology, geography, chemistry, physics and medicine. Muslim discoveries were indeed many and were of importance to the rise of modern science. Rather, I have chosen to deal with the practice of science itself, particularly with those aspects of it that Islam had introduced. Scientific methods, institutions, and the like are things that are part and parcel of contemporary scientific culture and that we all can see. Similarly, we can appreciate better Islamís lasting contribution to world culture by talking about its historical role in the foundation of the university. In conclusion, it is my hope that this
glimpse of Islamís contribution to science and culture will lead to a sincere desire on the part of many people to know more about the past civilizational relationship between Islam and the West. This is with the view of advancing the cause of dialogue of cultures. Thank you and God bless you.