Islamic Learning and the History of Science

Teresi's 'Lost Discoveries' cover, from the publisher's website.

A number of years ago now, I was given a copy of author Dick Teresi’s book Lost Discoveries, which I absolutely loved. The book explores the history of the sciences outside Europe, roaming through the development of mathematics and the discovery of zero to the invention of algebra (a good Arabic word), algorithms (another good Arabic word), astronomy in Central America, and the mechanical accomplishments of Chinese engineers. Although I have never been an avid mathematician, Teresi’s description brought this and other disciplines to life by linking scientific discovery to other cultural activities, from architecture to land usage.

It is this link, between culture and scientific exploration, that turns a dry recitation of technical accomplishments into a successful history. Even then, however, writing a history of science runs into conceptual difficulties, since we tend to label the intellectual pursuits of the past ‘science’ only when they conform to our own ideas of empiricism and rational inquiry. For an example, think about the sharp distinction between astronomy (science) and astrology (not-science.) For much of human history, however, these two disciplines were completely intertwined, and many mediaeval astronomers who are celebrated by modern historians used their accurate heavenly observations for astrological purposes.

Reproduction globe of constellations, from a historical original, at the Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam, Istanbul.

This problem is particularly acute when writing the history of scientific learning in Islam, where many use the cutting edge scientific output of Arab, Persian, and Turkic scholars to argue for the enlightened, modern nature of Islam. A good example of this interpretation is Jim Al-Khalili’s BBC programme Science and Islam (an excellent programme), which focuses upon achievements in the disciplines like mathematics, medicine, and astronomy which we strongly identify as scientific. Nor is this attitude one confined to Western historians–the recently established Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam in Istanbul likewise showcases such developments, implicitly arguing that empiricism, scientific inquiry, and Islam are not mutually incompatible.

A device for determining the position of Mecca (pictured in the top half). The requirements for Islamic prayer encouraged the development of navigation and cartography. Seen in the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, Istanbul.

And they aren’t. The problem with the above interpretation of science, and Islamic science in particular, isn’t that it’s wrong, per se, merely that it neglects many intellectual pursuits that occurred in tandem with these ‘scientific’ disciplines, and doesn’t draw on the rich cultural links between the arts, the sciences, politics, and the broader flow of history.

A reproduction ship model, from the Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam, Istanbul. The Ottomans underwent a similar 'Age of Discovery' as European countries, encouraged by trade and intellectual curiosity.

For example, the ‘science of letters’, which sought to uncover the coded language of the universe in the letters of the alphabet, began with the rather modern assumption that creation could be understood, rather than simply admired by, man. That its findings aren’t accepted by scientists today doesn’t mean that its practitioners didn’t consider themselves scientists. These ‘forgotten sciences’ can, in fact, tell us a great deal about world-views and social concerns, and belong in the annals of scientific history.

The Suleymaniye Mosque, often considered the pinnacle of Ottoman architecture. It housed a medrese, or institution for Islamic learning.

Another limitation to the approach of Islamic science outlined above is that it neglects the many other branches of Islamic learning–law, religious studies, literary composition, and political theory–which also testify to the cosmopolitan nature of Islamic civilisation. To many in the Middle Ages, the study of the Qur’an would have been far more respected, intellectually, than recording the stars, despite the high status of both areas of knowledge. By pursuing our own modern understanding of science and learning into the past, we lose sight of the social context, which often had its own values. By broadening our focus not only beyond Europe, but also beyond our own definitions of science, we come into closer contact with past cultures and their impressive intellectual achievements.

Yours truly, rather put to shame by a reproduction historical globe outside the Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam (yes, they very definitely knew the world was round.)


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