Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research
The-Structure-of-Scientific-Productivity-in-Islamic-Civilization-Orientalists’-Fables

The Structure of Scientific Productivity in Islamic Civilization: Orientalists’ Fables

PDF

Abstract: The popular analysis (promulgated by Orientalists) on the rise and decline of scientific productivity in Islamic civilization dichotomizes the events of Islamic history as a conflict between religion and reason. This analysis has since come to be coined the ‘Classical Narrative,’ and suggests that the scientific successes of Muslims throughout history were based solely on foreign influences, whereas Islamic values and ideas were responsible for their decline. However, recent studies have shown this narrative to be invalid due to its inconsistent rendering of the historical data. On the contrary, a more coherent understanding of the data shows that scientific productivity among Muslims was both actively and passively bolstered by Islamic values through the rejection of Aristotelian natural philosophy. Despite these developments, the reasons behind the decline have yet to be fully ascertained. As such, this paper offers a summary and critique of the Classical Narrative, as well as revisionary constructs towards understanding the influences behind the rise and decline of scientific productivity in Islamic civilization.

Introduction

Three months after the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, the renowned Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy penned an article for the Washington Post titled “How Islam Lost Its Way: Yesterday’s Achievements Were Golden,” attempting to explain the reasons behind the attacks on 9/11 as well as the downtrodden state of the Muslim world in the contemporary period. Throughout the article, he mentions the ‘Golden Age’ of Islamic civilization: a time when rationality and science triumphed over religious conservatism. He concludes his analysis by blaming religious orthodoxy for the end of this glorious era – more specifically, placing the burden on the 11th – 12th centuries C.E. theologian Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (d. 1111):

But in the 12th century, Muslim orthodoxy reawakened, spearheaded by the Arab cleric Imam Al-Ghazālī. Al-Ghazālī championed revelation over reason, predestination over free will. He damned mathematics as being against Islam, an intoxicant of the mind that weakened faith…Caught in the viselike grip of orthodoxy, Islam choked. No longer would Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars gather and work together in the royal courts. It was the end of tolerance, intellect and science in the Muslim world.[1]

Aside from the rather curious claim that Al-Ghazālī was an Arab (he was Persian), Hoodbhoy doesn’t explain how one man was capable of destroying an entire civilization – much less how said man’s supposed aversion to free will and mathematics had anything do with 9/11 – but it’s clear that he believes this illustrious scholar responsible for embedding a debilitating and everlasting irrationality into the Muslim world which has resulted in extremism, terrorism, political turmoil, and a lack of Nobel Prizes.

Over a decade later, at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the American astrophysicist and popular science educator, Neil deGrasse Tyson, would repeat this same tragic story about Islamic civilization’s once enlightened past and its downfall by this Muslim version of Voldemort, who single-handedly vanquished rationality through his apparent disregard for the utility of mathematics and denial of the necessary relationship between cause and effect.[2] 

But is it really the case that all of the problems facing the contemporary Muslim world are the result of some anti-rationalist and anti-scientific spirit emanating from the ideas of one man? And how is it that two scientists, from opposite sides of the world and cultures, are not only in agreement regarding the rise and decline of scientific productivity in Islamic civilization, but can air their opinions in such a way as to be taken as authorities on the matter? Because their opinions certainly have nothing to do with their credentials as historians of science. Rather, their opinions seem to reflect a popular and long-entrenched view that has remained unchallenged – at least until very recently.

For the past few decades, a number of historians of science have put this narrative under the microscope, scrutinizing its foundational assumptions and its incoherent rendering of the historical data: a projection inspired by the Occident’s own ideological history (i.e., the Enlightenment vs. the Church).[3]

That said, how did the rise of scientific productivity in Islamic civilization occur? What were its major influences? And was the subsequent decline a result of an overt religious conservatism? In order to answer these questions, we will need to analyze the historical data and the popular conceptions of those data, while surveying the most recent alternative theories. Prior to this, however, we should begin by defining many of the terms essential to this discourse so as to acquire a better grasp of this topic.

Defining Terms

The initial question that should be asked regarding the discourse behind ‘the rise and decline of scientific productivity in the Islamic civilization’ is how it should be conducted; meaning, what are the primary terms and concepts that need to be ascertained prior to examining the issue at hand? This same question applies to any and all intellectual inquiry, whether it regards science, theology, philosophy, law, or history.

Thus, the first term that needs to be defined is ‘science’ itself. However, despite what one might presume, this is not an easy feat given that the term can encompass a variety of different meanings depending on the contexts in which it is used. As a case in point, the philosopher of science, Osman Bakar states:

Science is not an entity that is obvious to everyone…To begin with, there are disagreements on terminological usage itself, whether the domain of knowledge to which the term ‘science’ is applied is to be confined to the natural sciences, or to be extended to cover the humanities and social sciences as well. Some people use the word in both senses.[4] 

Broadly speaking then, ‘science’ may simply be defined as a “body of knowledge.” In this respect, another philosopher of science, Alparslan Açikgenç suggests that anything worthy of being properly deemed a ‘science’ must have four essential characteristics, the first of which is that it must have a ‘subject matter’ or an “object of study” that “excludes all unrelated subjects of inquiry.[5] Following this, it needs to have a ‘method’ or “the manner in which a scientific investigation is carried out.[6] Afterwards, it must have a ‘theory’ or “a formulation given as a provisional solution to a certain problem.[7] And finally, it must have a ‘tradition’ or the function of acquiring new information which can be named and organized, leading to the formation of a scholarly community.[8] 

However, although this definition may be useful in a broader analysis, contemporary discussions revolving around the historical phenomena of the rise and decline of science within any given civilization often stress a more specific understanding of ‘science’ as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.[9] and its practical applicability (i.e., technology). That said, it is also relevant to note that embedded into this specification is the popular conception that science is somehow a value-neutral and objective enterprise, totally removed from the subjectivity of scientists themselves. However, this is mistaken and will be expressly challenged throughout this discussion. As the philosopher of science and polymath Ziauddin Sardar notes:

It can be argued that the ideological and political factors are external to science. That within science, the scientific method ensures neutrality and objectivity by following a strict logic – observation, experimentation, deduction and value-free conclusion. But scientists do not make observations in isolation. All observations take place within a well-defined theory. The observations, and the data collection that goes with them, are designed either to refute a theory or provide support for it. And theories themselves are not plucked out of the air. Theories exist within paradigms – that is, a set of beliefs and dogmas.[10]

The implications of such a view may seem counterintuitive; contrary to being “objective,” facts are entirely dependent on the theories scientists construct in order to coherently comprehend their experiences of the external world.  Indeed, the concept of ‘paradigm’ has become integral to understanding the nature of science today within academic circles and provides a foundation from which to ascertain the motivations, scope, and research interests of a scientific community. In explaining the reasoning behind the concept, the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (d. 1996) – who coined the term in his magnum opus, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions[11] – explains that while human experiences are indeed universal, our understanding of those experiences varies in accordance with our background beliefs:

If two people stand at the same place and gaze in the same direction, we must…conclude that they receive closely similar stimuli. (If both could put their eyes at the same place, the stimuli would be identical.) But people do not see stimuli; our knowledge of them is highly theoretical and abstract. Instead they have sensations, and we are under no compulsion to suppose that the sensations of our two viewers are the same. (Sceptics might remember that color blindness was nowhere noticed until John Dalton’s description of it in 1794.)[12]

Thus, far from being neutral, the practice and application of any given science is entirely dependent on the axiological and metaphysical motivations of scientists themselves.[13] For instance, the essence of scientific productivity within a secular society may differ tremendously in its goals and output from a more religiously inclined one, because the principal values and beliefs of the scientists within each civilization will most certainly differ. While the former may focus on problems and goals related exclusively to the preservation and functioning of a non-religious state and its people, the latter will be motivated by an entirely different set of beliefs and circumstances. In other words, culture, or “the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society,”[14] determine what constitutes ‘science,’ including the theories formed to interpret empirical data (i.e., ‘facts’).[15] As such, what we understand as the dominant scientific tradition today is really ‘Western science,’ whereas this research paper discusses the rise and decline of Islamic civilizations’ perception of science (i.e., ‘Islamic science’), as one which takes place within the context of an Islamic cultural framework, projecting the values and beliefs of Muslim scientists at work.[16] 

But does our understanding of science also affect our analysis of a civilization’s scientific history? Certainly. For instance, if we were to adopt the aforementioned ‘neutral view,’ the claim that science “rose” and “declined” within Islamic civilization would really be nothing more than an anachronistic and projected interpretation of our own experiences with science today. The result of such a view would bring us to the absurd conclusion that science is either non-existent in the contemporary Muslim world or is on the brink of extinction. Far from this being the case, science is alive and well among Muslims – from iPhones to the latest in medical technology – but is simply no longer being pioneered from the Islamic perspective. As such, the ‘value-laden’ conception is far more in line with historical and contemporary realities. This is why some historians of science, such as George Saliba, define ‘decline’ within the scope of a civilization’s scientific activity as “an age in which a civilization begins to be a consumer of scientific ideas rather than a producer of them.[17]

Despite the logic, the conception of science as neutral is still the most popular among laypeople. As such, it may be helpful to reframe certain historical categories to more properly reflect the cultural elements essential to their interpretation. Therefore, I propose that the categories of ‘rise’ and ‘decline’ be reconceptualized as the ‘Age of Productivity’ and the ‘Age of Dependency’ respectively. Neither of these labels imply a neutral perspective of science independent from their cultural influences nor do they place us in the conundrum of having to explain how science somehow “declined” in Islamic civilization despite contemporary Muslims possessing as many products of scientific activity as their Western counterparts. Rather, they more accurately represent the current status of Islamic science as a once productive enterprise now eclipsed and reliant on foreign elements. That said, for the sake of conciseness, the terms ‘rise’ and ‘decline’ will still be referenced throughout, but should be viewed as interchangeable with these proposed revised constructs.

Finally, it is necessary to know those terms representing the primary influences behind the rise and decline of any given scientific tradition. These influences are important in that they help us to not only comprehend the reasons behind the rise and decline of Islamic science, but also provide us the means to measure when they occurred. As such, the historian of science, Toby Huff divides these influences into two categories: ‘internal influences’ and ‘external influences.’ The former represents the “methods, theories, paradigms, and instrumentation of science,” and the latter represents the “cultural and institutional structures that give scientific inquiry a secure place in the intellectual life of a society and civilisation.[18]

In other words, internal influences are simply a particular civilization’s abstract perceptions and practice of science, whereas external influences constitute more material factors which facilitate the manifestation and application of those perceptions (e.g., government funded research facilities, libraries, universities, etc.). That said, I would also add to Huff’s definition of ‘external influences’ things like war, economic boom and recession, natural disasters, plagues, etc., given that these phenomena also play a major role in determining whether or not a society will be focused on nurturing their scientific tradition and to what ends.

Figure 1

The ‘rise’ and ‘decline’ of a scientific tradition re-conceptualized.

Following the above discussion, a cursory analysis of the history behind the Age of Productivity in Islamic civilization will be given. While it is not within the scope of this paper to elucidate a full picture of the various opinions regarding this point in history, a summary of the popular narrative – and the problems associated with it – shall be given so as to provide a backdrop for explaining the major influences behind the historical development of Islamic science.

The ‘Classical Narrative’ and Scholarly Dissent

During the advent of Islām in the 7th century C.E. Arabian Peninsula, the power of the Byzantine and Sassanid (Persian) Empires was beginning to wane in the wake of internal flaws in administration, military expansionism, economies, and never-ending conflicts with one another. Muslims at that time took advantage of these weaknesses and conquered both empires within a matter of a few decades. With the balance of power having shifted, the new Islamic polity was allowed to allocate its resources and time towards creating a world that would suit its own interests. As Dimitri Gutas notes:

The historical significance of the Arab conquests can hardly be overestimated. Egypt and the Fertile Crescent were reunited with Persia and India politically, administratively, and most important, economically, for the first time since Alexander the Great…The great economic and cultural divide that separated the civilized world for a thousand years prior to the rise of Islam, the frontier between the East and the West formed by the two great rivers that created antagonistic powers on either side, ceased to exist. This allowed for the free flow of raw materials and manufactured goods, agricultural products and luxury items, people and services, techniques and skills, and ideas, methods, and modes of thought.[20]

Despite this, Muslims would eventually be unable to sustain their dominance and begin to resort to dependency on foreign ideas and inventions in order to compete with their neighbors. As a result, the balance of power would again shift and Muslims would no longer possess the autonomy and dominance they once had. This is no better evidenced than in the status of Islamic civilization in the contemporary period, which struggles to survive in the face of disunity and the onslaught of Western militarization and its monopolization of the global economy and technology.

However, when discussing the rise of scientific productivity in Islamic civilization, historians have often projected a narrative that downplays the internal influence of Islamic values, while exaggerating these external influences of geopolitics as the primary motivating factors. On the other hand, these same researchers are not hesitant to credit the former when explaining its decline. This Orientalist inspired version of events,[21] otherwise referred to as the ‘Classical Narrative,’ has unfortunately been the popular framework of analysis for centuries within Western civilization, and now among Muslims as well, resulting in decades of unchallenged biases and suppressed evidence. That said, there have been attempts in recent years to provide alternative accounts. For instance, the historian of science George Saliba has made great strides in deconstructing this theory and its biases, summarizing its major assumptions in his monumental work, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance:

The narrative seems to start with the assumption that Islamic civilization was a desert civilization, far removed from urban life, that had little chance to develop on its own any science that could be of interest to other cultures. This civilization began to develop scientific thought only when it came into contact with other more ancient civilizations, which are assumed to have been more advanced…These surrounding civilizations are usually endowed with considerable antiquity, with high degrees of scientific production (at least at some time in their history), and with a degree of intellectual vitality that could not have existed in the Islamic desert civilization.

This same narrative never fails to recount an enterprise that was indeed carried out during Islamic times: the active appropriation of the sciences of those civilizations through the wilful process of translation. And this translation movement is said to have encompassed nearly all the scientific and philosophical texts that those ancient civilizations had ever produced.

….

In this context, very few authors would go beyond the characterization of this Islamic golden age as anything more than a re-enactment of the glories of Ancient Greece…Some would at times venture to say that Islamic scientific production did indeed add to the accumulated body of Greek science a few features, but this addition is usually not depicted as anything the Greeks could not have done on their own had they been given enough time.

….

The classical narrative, however persists in imagining that the Islamic science that was spurred by these extensive translations was short-lived as an enterprise because it soon came into conflict with the more traditional forces within Islamic society, usually designated as religious orthodoxies of one type or another. The anti-scientific attacks that those very orthodoxies generated are supposed to have culminated in the famous work of the eleventh-twelfth-century theologian Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī. [22] 

Saliba goes on to reject this narrative as a Western projection of its own history with the Church (i.e., a war between rationalism and religious dogma and institutions),[23] the first indication of which was the double standard of assigning zero credit to Islamic values for the rise of science in the Muslim world, while proposing them as the main culprit in its demise.

The Islamic scholar Muzaffar Iqbal notes that this projection can be traced back to the Orientalist Ignáz Goldziher (d. 1921) and his paper, “The Attitude of Orthodox Islam towards the Ancient Sciences,” in which he suggests that the decline ultimately occurred due to religious scholars’ negative attitudes towards the so-called ‘foreign sciences’ of the Greeks and Persians, due to their seemingly antithetical teachings to Islamic doctrine.[24] His ‘conflict thesis’ would eventually gain momentum, seeping into the works of many popular historians from the 20th century to the contemporary period. For instance, Huff evinces this attitude when he writes:

If in the long run scientific thought and intellectual creativity in general are to keep themselves alive and advance into new domains of conquest and creativity, multiple spheres of freedom – what we may call neutral zones – must exist within which large groups of people can pursue genius free from the censure of political and religious authorities. In addition, certain metaphysical and philosophical assumptions must accompany this freedom. Insofar as science is concerned, individuals must be conceived to be endowed with reason, the world must be thought to be a rational and consistent whole, and various levels of universal representation, participation, and discourse must be available. It is precisely here that one finds the great weaknesses of Arabic-Islamic civilization as an incubator of modern science.[25]

Huff reflects an overt bias against the theological thought and institutions of Islamic civilization, going so far as to use the phrase “Arabic sciences” so as to focus on the linguistic/ethnic characteristics of the translation movement over any perceived influences of religion. According to this view, the only positive contribution by Muslims during this period was the unification of society through a shared language and the appropriation of Greek philosophy – the hard-earned efforts of which would later be paradoxically dismantled by an anti-scientific spirit inherent to Islām itself. However, this raises the question as to how such a movement would have been possible if anti-scientific sentiments existed prior to and during its initiation. In other words, if ‘foreign sciences’ were already unwelcome due to their contrary nature to Islamic doctrine, then it is difficult to ascertain how they were tolerated to begin with and over such a long period of time.

Despite the impact and popularity of the conflict thesis, numerous anomalies have been found in Goldziher’s research, with some historians even suggesting that his hypothesis could only be formed through deliberately mining decontextualized quotations from Islamic scholarly texts.[26] As a result, Sonja Brentjes,[27] Dimitri Guntas,[28] Ahmad Dallal,[29] and the aforementioned George Saliba have attempted to offer more nuanced and evidence-based perspectives regarding the history of Islamic science – the last of whom I believe has provided the most salient deconstruction, positing that the rise of science was less an accidental appropriation of Greek thought and more the result of the pragmatic concerns of the early Muslim community itself.

Saliba begins his critique of the Classical Narrative by first addressing when the rise actually began, as opposed to simply assuming that it was spurred by the sudden genesis of translation during the reign of the Abbāsid caliph, Abū Jaʿfar Abdullāh al-M’amūn ibn Hārūn al-Rashīd (d. 833) between 813-833 C.E.

According to legend, Al-M’amūn’s desire to translate Greek works originated from a mystical experience in which he met Aristotle in a dream, who informed him that he should begin acquiring knowledge of science.[30] Despite this account being largely unconfirmed – and most likely a myth formed as a post-hoc explanation – this has not deterred supporters of the Classical Narrative from including it as evidence of how scientific productivity miraculously arose within Islamic civilization.

Acknowledging the tenuous nature of this origin story, Saliba discovers the period of the rise to be much earlier, ironically through examining the source behind the ‘dream account’ itself – the 10th century C.E. Persian Muslim historian Muḥammad ibn Abī Ya’qūb Isḥāq al-Nadīm (d. 940), who wrote an intellectual history of Islamic civilization in 987/988 CE called Kitab al-Fihrist (Book of the Index).[31] Therein, he not only finds the story of Al-M’amūn’s dream, but various other apocrypha.

Shifting through the numerous accounts, Saliba concludes that Al-Nadīm was simply recording popular stories of his time and did not intend for all of them to be used as a means to derive an authentic historical narrative.[32] Upon further scrutiny, the Orientalists’ use of Al-M’amūn’s dream appears to be quite disingenuous, as Al-Nadīm himself only saw it as having an impact on the spread of scientific knowledge, not as its source. This is especially evidenced by the fact that he titles this particular account, “Mention of the Reason Why Books on Philosophy and Other Ancient Sciences Became Plentiful…” and considers the story to be only “one of the reasons” behind even this phenomenon.[33] 

Similarly, Al-Nadīm contradicts the Classical Narrative by asserting that the Byzantines considered their own ancient works impermissible to learn, as they were “opposed to the prophetic [Christian] doctrine,” and retained this sentiment up until the rise of the Islamic Empire.[34] In other words, Muslims did not desire to translate these texts based on their sudden encounter with Byzantine culture, rather they were already scientifically inclined to a degree prior. How else could they have known about the Greek texts and sought them out had they not already been aware of their value? As Dallal states:

This translation movement provided the knowledge base of the emergent sciences. But while this explains part of the picture, and admittedly one of its most important parts, it does not provide a full explanation of the beginnings. To start with, what are the socio-political conditions and the cultural aptitudes that triggered interests in the translation and science in the first place? Second, what were the cultural conditions and the cultural aptitudes that enabled a significant community of interest to know how to translate complex scientific texts, to develop the technical terminology needed for the transfer of scientific knowledge between two languages, to understand scientific texts once they were translated, and to constructively engage the knowledge derived from them? Seen in this light, translation is not a mechanical process but part of a complex historical process that is not reducible to the transfer of external knowledge; rather, it involves forces intrinsic to the receiving culture – most important, the epistemological conditions internal to Islamic culture at the time of the translations.[35]

However, it is unsurprising that scholars supportive of the Classical Narrative would be selective in their reading of these accounts – preferring to mold them in accordance with their preconceived biases rather than attempt a critical examination. As noted previously by Saliba, the projection of the Western experience with religious dogma and institutions has largely served as the backdrop through which other historical events and cultures have been interpreted. As a consequence, Orientalists have actively searched out only those pieces of evidence which appear to conform to this understanding. In line with this, the account of Al-M’amūn’s dream also serves as a convenient means through which to tie in additional historical data which bolsters the Classical Narrative – as it was during his reign (813-833 C.E.) that one of the greatest theological controversies within Islamic civilization occurred: the rise of the Mu’tazilah.

According to the Muslim philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the Mu’tazilah were a group of theologians who “dominated the theological scene in Iraq for more than a century and developed an imposing theological edifice based on emphasis on the use of reason in matters pertaining to religion and the importance of human free will.[36] Their ‘rational approach’ towards basic doctrines of the faith led them to espouse views considered heretical, such as the complete obscurement of Allāh to a mere abstract concept completely incomprehensible to the human intellect. This was opposed to the more orthodox view that while the Divine Essence cannot be comprehended in total, His Attributes – as mentioned in the Islamic source texts – had a reality that was at least relatively comprehensible to the lay Muslim. However, the Mu’tazilah acquired their infamy from a far more controversial view: that the Qur’ān was created and not the eternal Word of Allāh.[37] 

But why was such a theological controversy so important to Orientalists? Because it was Al-Ma’mūn, so convinced of the veracity of Mu‘tazilism during his reign, who sanctioned the imposition of its doctrines on the wider Muslim community – even going so far as to implement it as a litmus test for judging the authenticity of an individual’s faith.[38] Thus, those looking for an obvious example of the “war” between rationalism and religion can trace a convenient linearity between Al-Ma’mūn’s dream account, the establishment of the Mu’tazilah, and the subsequent rise of scientific productivity in Islamic civilization. However, aside from the obvious misinterpretation of Al-Nadīm’s records, this sentiment relies on the short-lived influence (34 years) of a group counteracted and eventually overthrown by the more religiously conservative elements of society through the ascension of Caliph Abu’ Faḍl Jaʿfar ibn Muḥammad al-Muʿtaṣim bi’llāh al-Mutawakkil (d. 861).[39] In other words, it is doubtful that the so-called ‘rationalists’ – governing for such a meager span of time – could be precursors to the subsequent seven centuries of Muslim scientific progress and ingenuity, which fell under the control of their theological and intellectual opponents.

Alternatively then, Saliba finds a more plausible account whereby al-Nadīm recalls a story regarding how the second Ummayyad caliph, Khālid ibn Yazīd ibn Mu’āwiya (d. 704) had ordered some philosophers to translate Greek works on alchemy into Arabic for an unknown purpose. He seemingly connects this event to the later translation of government records (dīwāns) during the reign of the fifth Umayyad caliph, ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (d. 705), who ruled from 685 – 705 C.E., along with his governor in Iraq, Abū Muḥammad al-Ḥajjāj ibn Yūsuf (d. 714):

Khalid ibn Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah was called the “Wise Man of the Family of Marwan.” He was inherently virtuous, with an interest in and fondness for the sciences. As the Art [alchemy] attracted his attention, he ordered a group of Greek philosophers who were living in a city in Egypt to come to him. Because he was concerned with literary Arabic, he commanded them to translate the books about the Art from the Greek and Coptic languages into Arabic. This was the first translation in Islam from one language into another.
….

Then, at the time of al-Hajjaj [Ibn Yusuf] the registers, which were in Persian, were translated into Arabic.

….

The records in Damascus were in Greek…The records were translated during the time of Hishām ‘Abd al-Malik…It has [also] been said that the records were translated during the time of ‘Abd al-Malik [ibn Marwan].[40]

The first part of the story is not precisely explained by Al-Nadīm, other than the mention of Khālid’s “love of science.” This short tale – for which there is little explanation beyond what is mentioned above – is considered by him to be the very first attempt at translation. However, when we examine additional sources of this story, they indicate that Khālid had a part in motivating ‘Abd al-Malik to translate these works based on the latter’s desire to mint coinage exclusive to the Islamic polity. Prior to this, Muslims had depended on Byzantine and Persian currencies. This indicates that the primary motivation behind the desire to translate and learn works on alchemy was simply a matter of the newly formed Islamic empire aspiring to become independent of its neighbors and self-sustaining.[41] 

Likewise, government records were similarly translated for pragmatic goals, given that they constituted the foundation of the state’s operational fortitude. As for the reasons why these records were originally recorded in Persian and Greek? This had to do with the simple fact that the Persians and Byzantines were renowned at that time for their aptitude at “handling arithmetical operations carried over fractions and the like,” a necessary talent in order to produce such a record to begin with.[42] As such, ‘Abd al-Malik felt the need to ‘Arabize’ the dīwāns so as to provide better access to these records among his officials, as well as produce greater efficiency in the management of the state and the flow of wealth therein.

As a result, these practical concerns for transparency and the efficient management of the state’s coffers led to unintended – albeit fruitful – consequences. Since the recording of the dīwāns not only required skills in arithmetic, but also of astronomy (for being able to know the times for tax collection), geometry (for land surveying), and the knowledge of weights and measures (for commerce), this led to a desire to translate scientific works related to these tasks, as well as the subsequent education of native Arab speakers who wanted to qualify for government positions.[43] In other words, a civil office within the newly formed Islamic empire became the springboard by which other scientific texts were sought out, translated, and learned. This domino effect would eventually facilitate practicalities related to religious practice (ībadah) as well. For example, astronomy was also necessary for calculating the specific times for obligatory acts of worship such as prayer (ṣalāt), the month of fasting (Ramaḍān), and holidays (‘Īd), thereby effectively organising and administrating the most essential activities of the Muslim community.

Islām as Values – Science as a Tool

Summarizing the above discussion, the translation movement did not occur suddenly with the Abbāsids, but was set in motion during the Umayyad dynasty; for practical reasons related to the Islamic polity at that time. In other words, the internal influence of Islamic values was the principal motivating factor behind the initial acquisition and utilization of science. Although never explicitly propagated in the Qur’ān or sayings and actions of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ, a form of scientific intellectualism was already being cultivated among Muslims during the classical period, guided by the desire to implement their values based in the Islamic tradition itself. For example, the Qur’ān provides a clear practical motivation for scientific study:

He has subjected all that is in the heavens and the earth for your benefit, as a gift from Him. There truly are signs in this for those who reflect. (Al-Qur’ān, 45:13)

Furthermore, the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ encouraged seeking knowledge to the same effect, focusing principally on its utility:  

“A servant of Allāh will remain standing on the Day of Judgment until he is questioned about his (time on earth) and…about his knowledge and how he utilized it…” (Al-Tirmidhī, #148)

Knowledge from which no benefit is derived is like a treasure out of which nothing is spent in the cause of Allāh.” (Al-Tirmidhī, #108)

“Allāh, His angels and all those in Heavens and on Earth, even ants in their hills and fish in the water, call down blessings on those who instruct others in beneficial knowledge.” (Al-Tirmidhī, #422)

These aḥadīth enjoin Muslims to acquire knowledge that is “beneficial” and to “utilize it,” implying that its value is beyond mere acquisition. As a case in point, many people know the difference between what is considered morally virtuous and morally abhorrent, but this knowledge has zero value if it isn’t utilized to encourage virtue and refrain from vice. Likewise, knowing how to perform open heart surgery has absolutely no benefit unless one is willing to actually perform it or teach it to others. As such, according to Islām, just knowing something is not enough for it to be considered “beneficial.”

Sardar notes that it was this pragmatic view of knowledge – and of science and technology more specifically – that the early Muslims practiced and implemented:

The classical scholars of Islam were concerned that in the pursuit of knowledge the needs of the community should not be lost sight of, that ilm should not create undesirable social effects, that it should not tend to such a level of abstraction that it leads to the estrangement of man from his world and his fellow men, or to confusion rather [than] enlightenment. In this framework science is guided towards a middle path. While it should be socially relevant, the idea of a purely utilitarian science is rejected. Moreover, there is no such thing as science for science’s sake; yet the pursuit of pure knowledge for the perfection of man is encouraged. Science, far from being enjoyed as an end in itself, must be instrumental to the attainment of a higher goal.[44]

This perception would eventually result in the establishment of a scientific tradition quintessentially Islamic (i.e., motivated by the awareness and practice of Islamic values). But in what way was this new science different from any other? In this regard, the historian of science Jamil Regep – commenting on the practice of astronomy during the medieval period – notes the following two approaches generally adopted by Muslim scientists up until this time:

Broadly speaking, one can identify two distinct ways in which religious influence manifested itself in medieval Islamic astronomy. First, there was the attempt to give religious value to astronomy…The second general way in which religious influence shows up is in the attempt to make astronomy as metaphysically neutral as possible, in order to ensure that it did not directly challenge Islamic doctrine.[45]

The first way mentioned is what might be considered an ‘active’ approach towards the study of the natural world, in that Muslim scientists attempted to directly associate their values with a particular scientific practice. One such example was ʿAlāʾ al Dīn ʿAlī ibn Ibrāhīm Ibn al-Shatir (d. 1375), a simple muwaqqit (timekeeper) in the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus. Despite having no other career than to simply make sure that everyone knew the correct times for obligatory prayers, this did not stop him from having greater ambitions surrounding his own task. During his off time – which he most likely had plenty of – Al-Shatir constructed more accurate instruments (e.g., sundials) and performed theoretical studies on celestial motion so as to better perform his duties. Consequently, due to his supplementary activities, Al-Shatir was able to formulate a model for the upper planets that was conspicuously also used by Copernicus in his development of the heliocentric theory nearly two centuries later. This has led researchers to speculate that the former may have played a role in the latter’s thinking.[46] 

The other way in which Muslim scientists approached their subjects might be seen as more ‘passive’; rather than associate their values directly with their research and observations, they would often evade any questions or ideas seen as contrary to those values. This is not surprising as the very perception of science as a tool supported by, and in support of, those values would be undermined if any enquiry collided with the fundamental tenets of Islām. Even so, the practice of such passivity appears to contradict earlier claims that Islām encouraged the acquisition of knowledge. However, this sentiment is misplaced in that it reflects the outmoded view of science as a “neutral” enterprise – for the types of knowledge acquired are determined by a culture’s values to begin with. As such, these self-imposed limits are not necessarily detrimental. As a case in point, Muslim scientists eventually were able to develop the field of astronomy in new, more progressive directions through abandoning the old paradigm of their predecessors (i.e., Aristotelian natural philosophy) which supported many concepts that ran contrary to Islamic doctrine, such as astrology. Saliba summarizes this scientific revolution in the following way:

As for the intersection between religion and astronomy, and through it the intersection between science and religion…the new astronomy of hay’a was developed in tandem with the religious requirements of early Islam. In a sense this new astronomy could be defined as religiously guided away from astrology. With the pressure from the anti-astrological quarter, usually religious in nature or allied with religious forces, astronomy had to re-orient itself to become more of a discipline that aimed at a phenomenological description of the behavior of the physical world, and steer away from investigating the influences its spheres exert on the sublunary region as astrology would require.[47]

One notable example of a successful manifestation of this passive approach may be found in ‘Ala al-Dīn ‘Alī bin Muḥammad al-Qūshjī (d. 1474), the 15th century C.E. astronomer who grew up in the courts of Samarkand – one of the scientific centers of the world at that time – and eventually assumed a chair in teaching astronomy and mathematics at the Aya Sofia madrassa in Istanbul during the latter years of his life.[48] Commenting on the theological opposition to astronomy during this period, Ragep notes Al-Qūshjī’s attempts at appeasing the theologians while simultaneously defending his scientific practice:

Qūshjī is clearly sensitive to the Ash’arite [theologians’] position on causality, and he makes the interesting observation that part of their objection to it, at least as regards astronomy, has to do with the astrological contention of a causal link between the positions of the orbs and terrestrial events (especially “unusual circumstances”). To get around such objections, Qūshjī insists that astronomy does not need philosophy, since one could build the entire edifice of orbs necessary for the astronomical enterprise using only geometry, reasonable supposition, appropriate judgments, and provisional hypotheses. These premises allow astronomers [in the words of Qūshjī]: “to conceive {takhayyalū} from among the possible approaches the one by which the circumstances of the planets and their manifold irregularities may be put in order in such a way as to facilitate their determination of the positions and conjunctions of these planets for any time they might wish and so as to conform with perception {ḥiss} and sight {‘iyān}.

….

What makes Qūshjī’s position especially fascinating are some of the repercussions it had for his astronomical work. Since he claims to be no longer tied to the principles of Aristotelian physics, he feels free to explore other possibilities, including the Earth’s rotation.[49]

As a result of Al-Qūshjī abandoning the ‘old order’ of Aristotelianism for the sake of his own values, he was not only able to challenge the conventional astronomy of his time through better substantiated astronomical models, but was also led to argue that the Earth’s rotation was a possibility, thereby paving the way towards the construction of the heliocentric paradigm by Copernicus less than a century later.[50] In other words, those boundaries imposed on the Muslim mindset, when inquiring into the workings of the natural world, also served as liberating alternatives to outmoded paradigms and helped to advance the sciences in significant and revolutionary ways.

However, simply knowing why Muslims approached the sciences the way they did doesn’t exactly inform us as to how these alternatives were constructed – it’s only one part of the equation. Knowing the form is significantly different from knowing its substance. As such, we also need to know what were the specific values that defined the essence of the Islamic scientific enterprise and what motivated Muslim scientists to explore the natural world in the ways they did. In this regard, many contemporary scholars have attempted to offer specific criteria for what constitutes ‘Islamic scientific values.’ As a case in point, Sardar mentions that in 1981 a seminar was held in Stockholm, Sweden where Muslim scientists from around the world attempted to construct a list of those very values. What was agreed upon at that conference consisted of a total of ten concepts.[51] The first four are considered self-contained and foundational to the rest:

  1. Tawḥīd (Divine Unity):

Say, ‘He is Allāh the One, Allāh the Eternal. He begot no one nor was He begotten. No one is comparable to Him.’ (Al-Qur’ān, 112: 1-4)

The concept of Allāh’s Oneness, or unity, is central to Islamic doctrine; even an entire surah in the Qur’ān is dedicated to its explication. As such, Muslims are obligated to not only believe in this tenet – and all of Allāh’s specific Attributes – but also to not believe in anything that would contradict it in the slightest. The implication of this is that Islām reigns supreme in all matters concerning one’s understanding of reality, along with their perception of science. That said, this concept also motivates one to infer unity in all other aspects of reality, such as with humanity (i.e., anti-racism, anti-xenophobia, etc.) and the connection between knowledge and values.

  1. Khilāfah (Trusteeship):

[Prophet], when your Lord told the angels, ‘I am putting a successor on earth,’ they said, ‘How can You put someone there who will cause damage and bloodshed, when we celebrate Your praise and proclaim Your holiness?’ but He said, ‘I know things you do not.’(Al-Qur’ān, 2:30)

“‘David, We have given you mastery over the land. Judge fairly between people. Do not follow your desires, lest they divert you from Allāh’s path: those who wander from His path will have a painful torment because they ignore the Day of Reckoning.’” (Al-Qur’ān, 38:26)

The concept of human trusteeship on earth is important in that it dictates the way in which humanity should understand their place in existence: as a responsibility and duty towards the rest of creation entrusted to them by their Creator. Because Allāh has put humans on Earth for this task, we must take this status seriously. The implications of this concept manifest themselves in humanity’s concern for the environment, their impact on the planet’s health, animals, and other human beings, as well as the ends science and technology should be used for.

  1. Ībadah (Worship):

I created jinn and mankind only to worship Me.(Al-Qur’ān, 51:56)

Following the concept of trusteeship, Muslims have also been informed by the Creator that their purpose in life is to worship Him. In line with this, the obligation to nurture and preserve the earth, and all living and nonliving things, is explicitly seen as an act of worship itself. Thus, understanding the natural world and applying that knowledge in an ethical manner, whether it be through biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, medicine, etc. are all acts that fulfill a Muslim’s purpose in life in accordance with Islām.

  1. Ilm (Knowledge):

Surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth and in the alternation of the night and the day there are signs for men possessed of minds who remember Allāh, standing and sitting and on their side, and reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth… (Al-Qur’ān, 3:190-191).

As mentioned earlier, the acquisition of beneficial knowledge is one of Islamic teachings’ most prominent traits. Muslims are constantly asked through the Qur’ān to “reflect” on the signs of creation and to use their reasoning towards ascertaining the wonders of the world and the wisdom behind their existence.

Although considered equally important, the subsequent six values depend on the four aforementioned and function as three contrasting pairs:

5-6. Ḥalāl (Permissible) v. Ḥarām (Impermissible):

You who believe, intoxicants and gambling, idolatrous practices, and [divining with] arrows are repugnant acts – Satan’s doing – shun them so that you may prosper. (Al-Qur’ān, 5:90)

What Islām considers ‘praiseworthy’ and ‘blameworthy’ are essential to how Muslim scientists approach their fields. For example, Muslims are obligated to develop medicines that do not involve intoxicants nor certain animals determined as ‘unclean’ (e.g., pigs). As a result, physicians coming from the Islamic tradition will more likely search for alternative ingredients that may have more beneficial effects on their patients. Furthermore, impractical and unsubstantiated practices involving divination (e.g., astrology) are prohibited, allowing for Muslims to concentrate on more realistic and effective means of experimentation and its subsequent applications.

7-8. ‘Adl (Justice) v. Ẓulm (Tyranny):

You who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to Allāh, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, Allāh can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly – if you distort or neglect justice, Allāh is fully aware of what you do.” (Al-Qur’ān, 4:135)

The establishment of justice against tyranny is another essential aspect of a Muslim scientist’s worldview and leads to the development of only beneficial and non-harmful scientific practices. For example, any approach to the natural world that leads to injustices against people or the environment must be immediately shunned; and any science performed for strictly personal benefit at the expense of others is also prohibited.

9-10. Istislah/Maslahah (Public Interest) v. ‘Isrāf/Tabdhīr (Waste)[52]:

Give relatives their due, and the needy, and travelers — but do not squander your wealth wastefully: those who squander are the brothers of Satan, and Satan is most ungrateful to his Lord – but if, while seeking some bounty that you expect from your Lord, you turn them down, then at least speak some word of comfort to them. (Al-Qur’ān, 17: 26-28)

This last pair of concepts continues to establish a humanitarian and environmentalist ethic in Muslim scientists by limiting their goals to the betterment of humanity and restricting them from excesses that would cause unnecessary harm. For example, the production of a particular energy or fuel, food source, or construction material, should be for the sake of facilitating human survival and welfare, but should not be overproduced to the extent that they create unnecessary pollutants that eventually damage the very people they were made to benefit nor the environment from which they were cultivated.

Although this list may not be considered exhaustive by some, it has been one of the only attempts at constructing a list of definitive Islamic scientific values. These constructs also help to exemplify the essence of the Islamic scientific enterprise, reflecting the historical realities of the early Muslim community and its approach towards the natural world. In many ways then, Muslim scientists’ attempts at understanding reality and benefiting from it were the manifestation of strictly following their own ethos. So while Islam itself is not explicit in constructing a particular understanding of science, it may certainly be credited as the central paradigm which motivated Muslims to form the scientific practices and theories that they did – both actively and passively– and facilitated genuine scientific discoveries outside of Greek thought, which had been dominant for many centuries prior.

How Muslim scientists practiced their fields and perceived the world through their own values is not a novel phenomenon in the history of science, nor is it anomalous to how contemporary science is practiced today. On the contrary, many influential thinkers have subscribed to this perception. One such philosopher, by the name of John Dewey (d. 1952), even coined the term ‘Instrumentalism’ to describe this historically normative scientific praxis:

The office of physical science is to discover those properties and relations of things in virtue of which they are capable of being used as instrumentalities; physical science makes claim to disclose not the inner nature of things but only those connections of things with one another that determine outcomes and hence can be used as means.[53]

Dewey was among the forerunners who challenged the notion of scientific realism, or the idea that theories and their subaltern facts correspond entirely to reality.[54] As an anti-realist, he believed that science was not an approximate measure of truth, but was goal-oriented and limited by the intentions and desires of scientists themselves. No one can possibly have a full account of the physical world because no one has a full account of the data, nor can they perceive beyond the cultural contexts by which they meaningfully define and organize their experiences. Thus, the construction of theories is an entirely subjective enterprise where ‘truth’ is not defined in an absolute sense, but in accordance with what works towards an aspired end; the best theories are those which produce the best results.

Dewey’s views would go on to inspire other philosophers of science, including Willard Quine (d. 2000) and the aforementioned Thomas Kuhn, forming the philosophical tradition known today as ‘Pragmatism.’ And despite this understanding of science being considered relatively new – as it was in response to a set of problems emanating from the 20th century C.E. – philosophers drawing from this tradition have promoted their ideas as the most coherent and workable understanding of the normative historical scientific praxis. Unfortunately, the view of science as being “neutral” and “objective” is still the dominant paradigm among the lay community. This raises the question as to why and how such an alien relationship exists between these two groups (an analysis that is beyond the scope of this paper). That aside, the Pragmatists’ conception appears to more accurately represent the historical realities of early Muslim scientific practice, if only because the Classical Narrative – which is based on scientific realism – is so obviously wrong in its central assumption that Islamic values were irrelevant or averse to scientific productivity.

Thus, it would be appropriate to summarize Islamic science as an enterprise which adopts an instrumentalist approach with regard to Islamic values. In the same way, we may define contemporary science as one which adopts a form of secular instrumentalism, given that the Western ethos is the dominant and most influential in the contemporary period.

However, now knowing the internal influences in the rise of scientific productivity, how did this correlate with those influences external to Islamic civilization? Working in symbiosis with Islamic values, the environment Muslims lived in at the time also played a major factor. In other words, the desire to efficiently function as a community through the unification of language and administrative protocols was also motivated by the need to survive and compete with other hostile empires (i.e., the Byzantine and Sassanid) which surrounded the Islamic polity. Thus, the acquisition of the sciences and their subsequent translation were spurred not only by the shared values of the Muslim community, but by the conditions that provoked those values to be expressed and protected.

Al-Ghazālī: Villain or Scapegoat?

Given the Classical Narrative’s inability to adequately represent the historical data on the rise of scientific productivity in Islamic civilization, it is also likely inadequate in representing its decline. In other words, to suggest that the values which spurred scientific inquiry and ingenuity were simultaneously responsible for their stagnation is nothing less than an archetypal example of incoherency. However, as simple as it may be to dismiss the Classical Narrative on the basis of logic alone, I still find it necessary to address some of its finer points regarding the decline, if only for the sake of accentuating the efficacy of an alternative theory.

It is generally agreed upon that the inauguration of the Age of Dependency began roughly around the 16th century C.E. as scientific productivity in the Muslim world noticeably started to wane. The initial phases of the decline coincided with an increased reliance on the scientific institutions, technologies, and theories emanating from Europe. Gradually, this dependency became an enduring feature of Islamic civilization, culminating in its utter intellectual subservience to foreign powers by the 19th and 20th centuries C.E. – a reality most apparent to Muslims today.[55] How this all occurred is still undetermined by historians of science, largely due to an only very recent skepticism towards the definitive conclusions offered by the Classical Narrative. This scrutiny has not been without its merits, the most prominent example of such being towards the Orientalists’ portrayal of the aforementioned Al-Ghazālī, as the archetypical antagonist in the historical drama between ‘rationality’ and ‘religion.’

Though it has not been made clear to why this eminent scholar is always singled out as the primary culprit, promoters of the Classical Narrative suggests it has something to do with his now (in)famous refutation of Aristotelian philosophy titled Tahāfut al-Falāsifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers). As the story goes, Muslims were scientifically productive due to having adopted the rational framework of Greek philosophical thought (read ‘Western’), and then suddenly one scholar came along, expressed his ideas, and that was the end of reasonable thinking as we know it. Aside from the curious circumstance of a supremely rational society succumbing to one man’s supposed irrationality, there are a number of issues with this perspective; the first being Al-Ghazālī’s openly stated intentions behind his treatise.

In the very introduction of the Tahāfut, Al-Ghazālī makes a detailed list of the views he wishes to refute, while going out of his way to clarify those ideas he has no problem with. In particular, he mentions astronomy and mathematics as examples of the latter, even going so far as to denounce anyone who tries to argue against them:

Another example [of what I agree with] is their statement: “The solar eclipse means the presence of the lunar orb between the observer and the sun. This occurs when the sun and the moon are both at the two nodes at one degree.” This topic is also one into the refutation of which we shall not plunge, since this serves no purpose. Whoever thinks that to engage in a disputation for refuting such a theory is a religious duty harms religion and weakens it. For these matters rest on demonstrations—geometrical and arithmetical—that leave no room for doubt. Thus, when one who studies these demonstrations and ascertains their proofs, deriving thereby information about the time of the two eclipses [and] their extent and duration, is told that this is contrary to religion, [such an individual] will not suspect this [science, but] only religion. The harm inflicted on religion by those who defend it in a way not proper to it is greater than [the harm caused by] those who attack it in the way proper to it. As it has been said: “A rational foe is better than an ignorant friend.”[56]

So, if Al-Ghazālī was not opposed to our conventional understanding of science, then what was he arguing against and how was he responsible for bringing about the Age of Dependency? To answer the first question, Al-Ghazālī makes it very clear that his criticisms of the philosophers are in regards to nothing more than their abstract non-empirically verifiable beliefs that run contrary to Islām:

When I perceived this vein of folly throbbing within these dimwits, I took it upon myself to write this book in refutation of the ancient philosophers, to show the incoherence of their belief and the contradiction of their word in matters relating to metaphysics; to uncover the dangers of their doctrine and its shortcomings, which in truth ascertainable are objects of laughter for the rational and a lesson for the intelligent—I mean the kinds of diverse beliefs and opinions they particularly hold that set them aside from the populace and the common run of men. [I will do this] relating at the same time their doctrine as it actually is, so as to make it clear to those who embrace unbelief through imitation that all significant thinkers, past and present, agree in believing in God and the last day; that their differences reduce to matters of detail extraneous to those two pivotal points (for the sake of which the prophets, supported by miracles, have been sent); that no one has denied these two [beliefs] other than a remnant of perverse minds who hold lopsided opinions, who are neither noticed nor taken into account in the deliberations of the speculative thinkers, [but who are instead] counted only among the company of evil devils and in the throng of the dim-witted and inexperienced. [I will do this] so that whoever believes that adorning oneself with imitated unbelief shows good judgment and induces awareness of one’s quick wit and intelligence would desist from his extravagance, as it will become verified for him that those prominent and leading philosophers he emulates are innocent of the imputation that they deny the religious laws; that [on the contrary] they believe in God and His messengers; but that they have fallen into confusion in certain details beyond these principles, erring in this, straying from the correct path, and leading others astray. We will reveal the kinds of imaginings and vanities in which they have been deceived, showing all this to be unproductive extravagance. God, may He be exalted, is the patron of success in the endeavor to show what we intend to verify.[57]

This statement alone should already attract suspicion towards the Classical Narrative’s accusations against Al-Ghazālī. Regarding the second question then, it is claimed by critics that his metaphysical views were what ultimately altered Muslims’ perceptions of rationality and science for the worse. More specifically, their ire is often focused on three positions he adopted in opposition to the Aristotelian philosophers at the time. Those positions are as follows: 1) There is no necessary connection between causes and their effects; 2) The study of mathematics can be detrimental to one’s beliefs; and 3) Knowledge should only be acquired and practiced if it possesses utility (i.e., instrumentalism).

  1. Al-Ghazālī and Causality

In order to examine Al-Ghazālī’s views on cause and effect, we should begin by peering through the eyes of his critics – one such being the aforementioned advocate of the Classical Narrative, Pervez Hoodbhoy.

In his book, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality, Hoodbhoy attempts to explain the decline by simply echoing the Classical Narrative in full form; his entire argument rests on vilifying Islamic religious orthodoxy (the established scholarly tradition) by targeting Al-Ghazālī as its apparent archetype. In a chapter solely dedicated to the scholar, Hoodbhoy begins by both summarizing and chastising Al-Ghazālī’s views on causality:

Fire causes burning, lightning causes thunder, winds cause waves, and gravity causes bodies to fall. Such connections between an effect and its cause form the cornerstone of scientific thinking, both modern and classical. But this notion of causality is one which is specifically rejected by Asharite doctrine, and the most articulate and effective opponent of physical causality was AI-Ghazzali. According to AI-Ghazzali, it is futile to believe that the world runs according to physical laws. God destroys, and then recreates, the world after every instant of time. Hence there cannot be continuity between one moment and the next, and one cannot suppose that a given action will definitely lead to a particular consequence. Conversely, it is false to assign a physical cause to any occurrence. In AI-Ghazzali’s theology, God is directly the cause of all physical events and phenomena, and constantly intervenes in the world.[58]

Hoodbhoy subsequently concludes that the acceptance of Al-Ghazālī’s perspective leads to a “fatalistic attitude” that denies the possibility of making predictions and demotivates people to enquire into the workings of the natural world.[59] However, while it is certainly the case that Al-Ghazālī believed the connection between causes and their effects was not a necessary or permanent feature of such relationships – as all things were ultimately determined by Allāh – the notion that such a belief leads to intellectual lethargy is a questionable one. Hoodbhoy’s conclusion are especially dubious when one notices his failure to address Al-Ghazālī’s response to his objections. In other words, Al-Ghazālī had already played his own devil’s advocate and anticipated this criticism well in advance in the Tahāfut:

[To this] it may be said [by our detractors]: This leads to the commission of repugnant contradictions. For if one denies that the effects follow necessarily from their causes and relates them to the will of their Creator, the will having no specific designated course but [a course that] can vary and change in kind, then let each of us allow the possibility of there being in front of him ferocious beasts, raging fires, high mountains, or enemies ready with their weapons [to kill him], but [also the possibility] that he does not see them because God does not create for him [vision of them]. And if someone leaves a book in the house, let him allow as possible its change on his returning home into a beardless slave boy—intelligent, busy with his tasks—or into an animal; or if he leaves a boy in his house, let him allow the possibility of his changing into a dog; or [again] if he leaves ashes, [let him allow] the possibility of its change into musk; and let him allow the possibility of stone changing into gold and gold into stone…Indeed, if [such a person] looks at a human being he has seen only now and is asked whether such a human is a creature that was born, let him hesitate and let him say that it is not impossible that some fruit in the marketplace has changed into a human—namely, this human—for God has power over every possible thing, and this thing is possible; hence, one must hesitate in [this matter]. This is a mode wide open in scope for [numerous] illustrations, but this much is sufficient.

[Our] answer [to this] is to say: If it is established that the possible is such that there cannot be created for man knowledge of its nonbeing, these impossibilities would necessarily follow. We are not, however, rendered skeptical by the illustrations you have given because God created for us the knowledge that He did not enact these possibilities. We did not claim that these things are necessary. On the contrary, they are possibilities that may or may not occur. But the continuous habit of their occurrence repeatedly, one time after another, fixes unshakably in our minds the belief in their occurrence according to past habit.

….

If, then, God disrupts the habitual [course of nature] by making [the miracle] occur at the time in which disruptions of habitual [events] take place, these cognitions [of the nonoccurrence of such unusual possibilities] slip away from [people’s] hearts, and [God] does not create them. There is, therefore, nothing to prevent a thing being possible, within the capabilities of God, [but] that by His prior knowledge He knew that He would not do it at certain times, despite its possibility, and that He creates for us the knowledge that He will not create it at that time. Hence, in [all] this talk [of theirs], there is nothing but sheer vilification.[60]

Al-Ghazālī’s rendition of his critics’ ridicule includes a number of absurdities that could be derived from misunderstanding his position: from dramatic changes in perception to fruit spontaneously morphing into a human being. Apparently, given that such possibilities are endless, this makes it infeasible to expect any sort of consistency from the observable world.

However, Al-Ghazālī answers his fictional opponents by emphasizing the fact that possibilities are not actualities; just because something could be does not necessitate that it will be. He bolsters his point by stating that there is a habitual nature to things that Allāh has created, allowing for the uninhibited acquisition of knowledge and any potential anomalies that may or may not take place. In other words, regardless if one thinks there is no necessary link between causes and their effects, their perception of those habitual relationships will still remain the same. He goes even further to appeal to Allāh’s Omniscience, suggesting that His Foreknowledge limits the occurrence of every possibility, preventing mankind from anticipating and subsequently being paralyzed by them.

But even if one doesn’t find Al-Ghazālī’s reasoning valid, it takes little common sense effort to demonstrate that this accusation against him is incorrect. We need only recall the number of known possibilities that could happen to us in any given day; from the moment we wake up to the moment we sleep, the various ways in which we could be harmed or killed are immeasurable. Whether it be choking on your food, tripping and breaking your neck, experiencing a heart attack, being struck by a moving vehicle, being struck by lightning, being mauled by a wild or domestic animal, having a heavy object fall on you, drowning, dehydration, poisoning, contracting a fatal disease, being murdered, etc.  – and the various ways all of these can manifest – the majority of people still manage to live their lives without much reservation, despite knowing all of these things could happen to them at any given moment. Thus, the claim that such a perspective nurtures a “fatalistic attitude” is completely unwarranted, because human beings are just too stubborn to care otherwise. Perhaps had Hoodbhoy and his cohorts taken the time to read the Tahāfut beyond a cursory level confirmation bias,[61] and used a bit of common sense, Al-Ghazālī’s fictional opponents may have likewise remained in the realm of possibility.

Even more incriminating evidence against advocates of the Classical Narrative is their hypocrisy with regards to Ghazalian causality. While repudiating him for being “irrational,” they simultaneously lionize their own intellectual figures who held quite similar views. For example, Hoodbhoy lauds the French philosopher Renè Descartes (d. 1650) as being the “most important” thinker behind modern science; for whom we apparently still owe a great deal in terms of our understanding of science today.[62] What’s ironic about this is that while Descartes believed there was a necessary connection between causes and their effects, he did not believe that such a relationship existed between perception and knowledge – arguably a far more essential component to the flourishing of science.

In order to showcase Descartes’ position on this epistemic relationship, we need only look at a few passages from his seminal work Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy) where he argues that the indefeasibility of one’s observations and abstract deductions can only be established by first believing in God:

The fact that an atheist can be ‘clearly aware that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles’ is something I do not dispute. But I maintain that this awareness of his is not true knowledge, since no act of awareness that can be rendered doubtful seems fit to be called knowledge. Now since we are supposed that this individual is an atheist, he cannot be certain that he is not being deceived on matters which seem to him to be very evident…And although this doubt may not occur to him, it can still crop up if someone else raises the point or if he looks into the matter himself. So he will never be free of doubt until he acknowledges that God exists.[63]

Here, Descartes is quite clear in saying that atheists are incapable of acquiring “real knowledge” because they don’t believe in God. Although he provides many reasons for this conclusion, we need only focus on how it reveals a profound irony emanating from Hoodbhoy’s nomination of the philosopher as a central figure behind modern science; the idea that atheists are scientifically impotent doesn’t quite coincide with a narrative that suggests the inherent rationality of anti-religious thinking.

More importantly however, even if one were to accept Descartes’ reasoning as valid, his epistemology suffers from a glaring incoherency that actually makes knowledge virtually unobtainable. This is most evident in his chapter titled the “Fourth Meditation,” where he suggests that only after having ‘clearly and distinctly’ ascertained God’s existence can other knowledge be possible:

During the past few days I have accustomed myself to leading my mind away from the sense; and I have taken careful note of the fact that there is very little about corporeal things that is truly perceived, whereas much more is known about the human mind, and still more about God. The result is that I now have no difficulty in turning my mind away from imaginable things and towards things which are objects of the intellect alone and are totally separate from matter…And when I consider the fact that I have doubts, or that I am a thing that is incomplete and dependent, then there arises in me a clear and distinct idea of a being who is independent and complete, that is, an idea of God. And from the mere fact that there is such an idea within me, or that I who possess this idea exist, I clearly infer that God also exists, and that every single moment of my entire existence depends on him. So clear is this conclusion that I am confident that the human intellect cannot know anything that is more evident or more certain. And now, from this contemplation of the true God, in whom all the treasures of wisdom and the sciences lie hidden, I think I can see a way forward to the knowledge of other things.[64] 

A careful examination of this passage showcases a very obvious logical inconsistency that renders Descartes’ entire argumentation suspect: If one requires a belief in God in order to have certainty, how is it possible to believe in God with certainty?

This conundrum, now referred to as the “Cartesian Circle,” did not escape Descartes and he did attempt to treat the problem. Despite this, however, his critics did not find his solutions convincing and his epistemology would eventually be eclipsed by more tenable explanations. All this considered, it seems remarkably nonsensical for Hoodbhoy to accuse Al-Ghazālī of promoting “fatalism” when he simultaneously champions a thinker who argued himself into intellectual paralysis. In other words, if the latter can so credulously be regarded as an exemplar of modern scientific thinking, then it is quite ludicrous to see the former as its opposite.

  1. Al-Ghazālī and Mathematics

After a questionable exposé of Ghazalian causality, Hoodbhoy quickly shifts focus away from the Tahāfut and goes on to examine the medieval scholar’s views on mathematics, drawing from his biography, Al-Munqidh min al-Dalāl (Deliverance from Error). Hoodbhoy more or less begins and ends his analysis by merely quoting a passage from Al-Ghazālī and then adding some brief commentary:

[Al-Ghazālī states:] “There are two drawbacks which arise from mathematics. The first is that every student of mathematics admires its precision and the clarity of its demonstrations. This leads him to believe in the philosophers and to think that all their sciences resemble this one in clarity and demonstrative power. Further, he has already heard the accounts on everybody’s lips of their unbelief, their denial of God’s attributes, and their contempt for revealed truth; he becomes an unbeliever merely by accepting them as authorities.”

The argument here is clearly that mathematics is potentially, but not necessarily, dangerous. The danger exists because those who study the subject may become inebriated with the power and beauty of precise reasoning, and so forsake belief in revelation.[66]

Despite what may appear to be an unambiguous dismissal of the study of mathematics — due to its imbuing its wielders with the “power and beauty of precise reasoning” — and subsequent rejection of religious beliefs, Al-Ghazālī clearly has been misrepresented. My contention is not about a simple difference of interpretation, rather it is in contrast to a case of selective attention. Whether due to the fact that he derived the quote solely from a secondary source,[67] or because he didn’t feel the need to present the entire context of the passage in question, Hoodbhoy is clearly being disingenuous.

Aside from Al-Ghazālī’s aforementioned approval of mathematics in the Tahāfut, his opposition to its study here refers specifically to a phenomenon during his time where the philosophers insisted that the value of pure mathematics rested exclusively in the appraisal of specific metaphysical doctrines.[68] These included the doctrine of “the world’s pre-eternity,” the doctrine of “the world’s post-eternity,” the doctrine “that heaven is an animal that moves through volition,” and the doctrine “that annihilation is impossible for the human soul,” among many others.[69] Moreover, mathematics was also being used as a means to justify the philosophers’ subaltern sciences, like astral determinations (i.e., astrology), talismans, and even magic.[70] In other words, although mathematics was important for learning about the natural world, it was predominantly being utilized for the sake of anything but. 

As such, Al-Ghazālī warned of studying the discipline since it was not yet fully demarcated from the philosophers’ superstitions. In fact, his concerns are mentioned in the passage immediately following Hoodbhoy’s reference:

[…he becomes an unbeliever merely by accepting them as authorities], asserting: “If religion were true, this would not have been unknown to these philosophers, given their precision in this science of mathematics.” Thus, when he learns through hearsay of their unbelief and rejection of religion, he concludes that it is right to reject and disavow religion. How many a man have I seen who strayed from the path of truth on this pretext and for no other reason! One may say to such a man: “A person skilled in one field is not necessarily skilled in every field…On the contrary, in each field there are men who have reached in it a certain degree of skill and preeminence, although they may be quite stupid and ignorant about other things. What the ancients had to say about mathematical topics was apodeictic, whereas their views on metaphysical questions were conjectural. But this is known only to an experienced man who has made a thorough study of the matter.” When such an argument is urged against one who has become an unbeliever out of mere conformism, he finds it unacceptable. Rather, caprice’s sway, vain passion, and love of appearing to be clever prompt him to persist in his high opinion of the philosophers with regard to all their sciences. This, then, is a very serious evil, and because of it one should warn off anyone who would embark upon the study of those mathematical sciences. For even though they do not pertain to the domain of religion, yet, since they are among the primary elements of the philosophers’ sciences, the student of mathematics will be insidiously affected by the sinister mischief of the philosophers. Rare, therefore, are those who study mathematics without losing their religion and throwing off the restraint of piety.[71]

Surprisingly, Hoodbhoy doesn’t bother to mention the other half of Al-Ghazālī’s statement and infers an entirely different conclusion from what the scholar was actually conveying. However, even more contrary to Hoodbhoy’s accusations is yet another statement by Al-Ghazālī, in which he explains a second reason that studying mathematics may prove to be problematic:

The second evil likely to follow from the study of the mathematical sciences derives from the case of an ignorant friend of Islam who supposes that our religion must be championed by the rejection of every science ascribed to the philosophers. So he rejects all their sciences, claiming that they display ignorance and folly in them all. He even denies their statements about eclipses of the sun and the moon and asserts that their views are contrary to the revealed Law. When such an assertion reaches the ears of someone who knows those things through apodeictic demonstration, he does not doubt the validity of his proof, but rather believes that Islam is built on ignorance and the denial of apodeictic demonstration. So he becomes all the more enamored of philosophy and envenomed against Islam. Great indeed is the crime against religion committed by anyone who supposes that Islam is to be championed by the denial of these mathematical sciences.[72]

In summary, Al-Ghazālī also went on to critique the other extreme of those who reject mathematics altogether.  As such, when we go beyond a cursory reading of the texts, we find that his concern for studying mathematics rested not in its inherent opposition to religion or science, but in the philosopher’s monopolization of it solely for the sake of their unsubstantiated metaphysical views. Thus, contrary to Hoodbhoy’s assertions, Al-Ghazālī was not against the study of mathematics per se; rather, he attempted to facilitate it by pointing out its licentious misuse by his intellectual opponents.

  1. Al-Ghazālī and Instrumentalism

Hoodbhoy finalizes his critique of religious orthodoxy by suggesting that the overt instrumentalism practiced by the early Muslims was another factor which led to the decline of scientific productivity in Islamic civilization:

A second factor which discouraged learning for learning’s sake was the increasingly utilitarian character of post Golden Age Islamic society. Utilitarianism – the notion that the only desirable things are those which are useful – was not an obsession of Islamic society in the early days of its intellectual development.[73]

Here, Hoodbhoy indirectly continues his assault on Al-Ghazālī for his opposition to the Aristotelian philosophers, seemingly unaware that the latter conflated scientific disciplines with their metaphysical doctrines. Despite having already shown that instrumentalism was the driving force behind the rise of scientific productivity in Islamic civilization, this accusation makes little sense. As such, we should examine the basis on which Hoodbhoy is uncritically drawing this conclusion.

One of the first critics of the Classical Narrative was the historian of science Abdelhamid Ibrahim Sabra (d. 2013), who saw the conflict thesis as inadequate and alternatively posited that, “the decline of science occurred, not in the context of opposition (as is usually thought) but in the context of acceptance and assimilation.[74] Despite Sabra offering a different perspective on the subject, his hypothesis is more a modification of the Classical Narrative, rather than a genuine critique. For instance, while he views the decline of scientific productivity in the Muslim world as not being the fault of religion opposing science, he believes it occurred due to science playing a subservient role (i.e., instrumentalism).

Given that Sabra’s hypothesis still borrows extensively from the Classical Narrative’s version of events, it’s not surprising that his analysis also projects a negative view of religious influence on scientific inquiry. More specifically, he does not resist the temptation to impugn the same historical figures as his predecessors. For example, in his article, “The Appropriation and Subsequent Naturalization of Greek Science in Medieval Islam,” Sabra writes:

In a chapter of his Muqaddima devoted to a lengthy refutation of philosophy the fourteenth century historian Ibn Khaldūn wrote that, “The problems of physics [he was referring to Aristotelian natural philosophy] are of no importance for us in our religious affairs or our livelihoods. Therefore, we must leave them alone.” He was echoing a sentiment already expressed by Ghazālī three hundred years earlier…There is only one principle that should be consulted whenever one has to decide whether or not a certain branch of learning is worthy of pursuit: it is the all-important consideration that “this world is a sowing ground for the next”; and Ghazālī quotes in this connection the Prophetic Tradition: “May God protect us from useless knowledge.” The final result of all this is an instrumentalist and religiously oriented view of all secular and permitted knowledge…[which would] put a curb on theoretical inquiry.[75]

Yet again we find Al-Ghazālī shouldering the burden for the decline, only this time his influence has been reinterpreted as having limited science to a religious function rather than opposing it altogether. To support his position, Sabra makes a tenuous connection between the views of the late 15th century C.E. historian Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn al-Ḥaḍramī (d. 1406) and Al-Ghazālī, supplemented by a single ḥadīth. Despite Sabra considering this “strongly suggested observation,”[76] such scant evidence surely cannot constitute enough historical data to propound a theory on the decline of a scientific tradition.[77] This is further bolstered by the realization that Al-Ghazālī’s rejection of ‘useless sciences’ cannot possibly be seen as the least bit unwarranted, especially if we recall the fact that Aristotelian physics (i.e., ‘natural philosophy’) incorporated many erroneous concepts such as astrology, a stationary Earth, and an incorrect view of celestial motion.[78] To Al-Ghazālī, subjects such as astronomy were not similar methodologically to natural philosophy; the former was defined by its devotion to observation and the precise use of mathematics – much like contemporary physics – whereas the latter was based almost entirely on speculative reasoning. Despite the philosophers’ conflations, a lesser form of demarcation did actually exist between the two prior to the advent of Islamic science, and only became more pronounced as Muslims critically examined the Greek texts for useful material. As Regep notes:

Islamic scientists inherited an astronomy from the ancients that already had been differentiated to a lesser or greater degree from natural philosophy. Islamic astronomers, though, carried this process much farther along, and it does not seem unreasonable to see this, at least in part, as a response to religious objections directed at Hellenistic physics and metaphysics, on the one hand, and to religious neutrality towards mathematics, on the other.[79]

As such, it should not be an affront to historians that Al-Ghazālī would want to seek more practical alternatives. Seemingly unbeknownst to Sabra, Ibn Khaldūn likewise made this distinction. Only a few paragraphs prior to where the former quotes him, he explains that the “problems” he was referring to revolved around the philosophers’ assumptions regarding the unequivocal relationship between Aristotelian abstract universals and sense perception:

The arguments concerning the corporeal existentia constitute what they [the philosophers] call the science of physics. The insufficiency lies in the fact that conformity between the results of thinking – which, as they assume, are produced by rational norms and reasoning – and the outside world, is not unequivocal. All the judgments of the mind are general ones, whereas the existentia of the outside world are individual in their substances. Perhaps, there is something in those substances that prevents conformity between the universal (judgments) of the mind and the individual (substances) of the outside world. At any rate, however, whatever (conformity) is attested by sensual perception has its proof in the fact that it is observable. (It does not have its proof) in (logical) arguments. Where, then, is the unequivocal character they find in (their arguments)?[80]

 

In no way then was Ibn Khaldūn a representative of anti-scientific sentiments either. That said, perhaps the greatest evidence against Sabra’s – and subsequently Hoodbhoy’s – assertions are the numerous scientific advancements that occurred five centuries post Al-Ghazālī. Although these discoveries are at the individual level and don’t appear to be brought about by any institutionalized initiatives, they still reflect a scientific mentality prevalent within society and one which had no real restrictions. Such examples include the accomplishments of scholars like ‘Ala’ al-Dīn Abu al-Hasan ‘Alī ibn Abi al-Hazm al-Qarshi Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288), who discovered the pulmonary circulation of blood, Kamal al-Dīn al-Farisī (d. 1319), who discovered how the colors of a rainbow are formed,[81] Mulla Fatḥallāh al-Shirwānī (d. 1450) and Shams al-Dīn al-Khafirī (d. 1550), who both authored astronomical commentaries critical of the Ptolemaic system, and many more.[82] In other words, the post-Ghazālī age was ripe with scientific discoveries and treatises that most certainly influenced European scientists and paved the way towards the Western scientific revolution.

Summarizing all the above discussions, not only is it evident that the Classical Narrative fails to adequately represent the events and influences leading up to the Age of Productivity, but also misrepresents the events and influences which led to its decline. The arch villain chosen to exemplify a religious orthodoxy antagonistic to science is not only innocent of the crimes he is accused of, but has proven to be only a scapegoat for Orientalists’ fables.

Towards a New Understanding

The analysis I have conducted thus far on the rise and decline of scientific productivity in Islamic civilization has not merely been for the sake of critique, but towards establishing a new understanding of the subject entirely. What has been determined, up until this point, is that the Classical Narrative can no longer be considered a valid and coherent means by which to understand the scientific history of Islamic civilization – the thesis that religion conflicted with or subjugated science to inoperability is simply untenable. Rather, what we find is that an overt instrumentalism, spearheaded by religious orthodoxy, actually nurtured scientific ingenuity through the rejection of the outmoded paradigm of Aristotelian philosophy. The question remains then: What went wrong?

Islamic science flourished well into the 16th century C.E., only then to decline to a point where Muslims began to depend solely on European ideas and inventions. Somehow and somewhere before the end of this period, events transpired within Islamic civilization that took it on a self-destructive trajectory; events which would see the abandonment of its scientific values altogether. As Açikgenç states:

… a scientific tradition is continuous, as such, it cannot be interrupted. For, if there is an interruption, it may not continue creatively as it is the case with Islamic scientific tradition today. Discontinuity will necessarily turn the members of that tradition to another civilization where they can find a continuous tradition.[83]

In line with the previous discussions, Al-Ghazālī and his intellectual progeny were certainly not to blame for undermining science; they simply believed that rational knowledge should produce effective results and not remain in the realm of the abstract.[84] Thus, contrary to the Classical Narrative, scientific ingenuity is not limited by mere opposition towards certain forms of speculative reasoning – as to afford every theoretical whim the same value would be unrealistic and impractical. Rather, the limitation in question would need to be far more constraining, imprisoning theoretical inquiry not by means of utilitarian subservience, but some form of impervious absolutism. Had the early Muslims’ instrumentalism been prone to the latter, the result would have been the total abandonment of scientific research, given the superfluous nature of inquiring further into already resolved issues. On the contrary, we find instrumentalist-minded scientists struggling to make their research relevant by formulating more pragmatic models – such as in the case of Al-Qūshjī and others – making it possible for alternative solutions to be found later. Therefore, recalling Dewey, we may be able to find clues towards revealing the culprit:

The history of the development of the physical sciences is the story of the enlarging possession by mankind of more efficacious instrumentalities for dealing with the conditions of life and action. But when one neglects the connection of these scientific objects with the affairs of primary experience, the result is a picture of a world of things indifferent to human interests because it is wholly apart from experience. It is more than merely isolated, for it is set in opposition. Hence when it is viewed as fixed and final in itself it is a source of oppression to the heart and paralysis to imagination.

….

Since the seventeenth century this conception of experience as the equivalent of subjective private consciousness set over against nature, which consists wholly of physical objects, has wrought havoc in philosophy.[85]

What is fascinating about this passage is that it seems to admit of an ideology that intimately connects an ailing Islamic civilization to its now dominant Western counterpart; what the latter was only beginning to experience by the 17th century C.E., was what may have very well determined the destiny of the former by the same period. It is from this passage that I began my journey into discovering how the decline of scientific productivity in Islamic civilization occurred, and it is where, I believe, the answer is to be found.

In the next paper, we will examine the actual influences behind the Age of Dependency and how Muslims may be able to revive the Age of Productivity.


[1] Pervez Hoodbhoy, “How Islam Lost Its Way: Yesterday’s Achievements Were Golden,” The Washington Post, December 30, 2001, accessed October 21, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/2001/12/30/how-islam-lost-its-way-yesterdays-achievements-were-golden/d325ce2a-146f-4791-b5e7-8e662d991cbb/?utm_term=.08b85096dca1

[2] Stephen Shankland, “Neil DeGrasse Tyson: US need not lose its edge in science,” CNET, June 20, 2014, accessed October 21, 2016, http://www.cnet.com/news/neil-degrasse-tyson-the-us-doesnt-have-to-lose-its-edge-in-science/

[3] This is the formal term used to refer to ‘the West’ (i.e., Europe, the Americas, and their subsequent colonies, territories, etc.).

[4] Osman Bakar, preface to Tawhid and Science, 2nd ed. (Shah Alam: Arah Publications, 2008), xxx-xxxi.

[5] Alparslan Açikgenç, Islamic Scientific Tradition in History (Kuala Lumpur: IKIM, 2014), 12.

[6] Ibid, 13.

[7] Ibid, 45.

[8] Ibid, 15.

[9] “Science,” Oxford Dictionaries, accessed December 6, 2016, http://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/science

[10] Ziauddin Sardar, How Do We Know? Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (London: Pluto Press, 2006), 170.

[11] As the reader may easily ascertain, Kuhn’s work was the primary influence behind this paper’s title.

[12] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 192.

[13] Axiology is the philosophical study of values. Values are generally considered the cherished beliefs of a people that guide them in all their affairs (i.e., morals and ethics).

[14] “Culture,” Oxford Dictionaries, accessed December 6, 2016, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/culture

[15] For a thorough understanding of science in this respect, please refer to Thomas Kuhn’s work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

[16] Alparslan Açikgenç, Islamic Scientific Tradition in History (Kuala Lumpur: IKIM, 2012), 27.

[17] George Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2007), 248.

[18] Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 19.        

[19] David Deming, Science and Technology in World History, Volume 2: Early Christianity, the Rise of Islam and the Middle Ages (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010), 81-82.

[20] Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ‘Abbasid Society (2nd-4th/5th-10th c.) (New York: Routledge, 1998), 11.

[21] An Orientalist is broadly defined as “someone who studies the Orient [i.e., the East].” However, it is specifically being used here to refer to those who do so through the lens of a Western bias, viewing other cultures and religions as static, underdeveloped, and inferior.

[22] Saliba, Islamic Science and European Renaissance, 1-2.

[23] Ibid, 234.

[24] Muzaffar Iqbal, The Making of Islamic Science (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust, 2009), 73.

[25] Huff, Rise of Early Modern Science, 219.        

[26] Sonja Brentjes, “Reviews: Oversimplifying the Islamic Scientific Tradition”, Metascience 13 (2004): 83-86, accessed October 17, 2016, doi: 10.1023/B:MESC.0000023270.62689.51

[27] See, Sonja Brentjes, “On the Location of the Ancient or ‘Rational’ Sciences in Muslim Educational Landscapes (AH 500 – 1100),” Bulletin of the Royal Institute of Inter-Faith Studies 4 (2002): 47-71.

[28] See, Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture.

[29] See, Ahmad Dallal, Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

[30] Saliba, Islamic Science and European Renaissance, 13.

[31] Ibid, 28.

[32] Ibid, 40.

[33] Muhammad al-Nadīm, The Fihrist of Al-Nadīm: A Tenth-Century Survey of Muslim Culture, V.2, trans. Bayard Dodge (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), 583.

[34] Ibid, 579 – 581.

[35] Dallal, Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History, 10-11.

[36] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Philosophy from its Origin to its Present: Philosophy in the Land of Prophecy (New York: State University of New York Press, 2006), 121.

[37] Ibid, 122.

[38] Ibid, 124.

[39] Saliba, Islamic Science and European Renaissance, 13-14.

[40] Al-Nadīm, Fihrist, 581-583.

[41] Saliba, Islamic Science and European Renaissance, 50-51.

[42] Ibid, 53.

[43] Ibid, 54-55.

[44] Sardar, How Do You Know?, 137.

[45] F. Jamil Ragep and Alī al-Qūshjī. “Freeing Astronomy from Philosophy: An Aspect of Islamic Influence on Science,” Osiris V. 16, Science in Theistic Contexts: Cognitive Dimensions (2001), 50.

[46] Saliba, Islamic Science and European Renaissance, 189-190.

[47] Ibid, 186.

[48] Ragep, “Freeing Astronomy”, 61.

[49] Ibid, 61-63.

[50] In fact, it has been argued that Qushjī may have been directly responsible for the later findings of Copernicus. For more on this see, F. Jamil Ragep, “‘Alī Qushjī and Regiomontanus: Eccentric Transformations and Copernican Revolutions,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 36/4 (2005): 359-371.

[51] Sardar, How Do You Know?, 184.

[52] Sardar mistranslated the word for ‘waste’ here as ‘dhiya’. Thus, I have changed it to reflect the correct terminology.

[53] John Dewey, preface to Experience and Nature (London: George Allen & Unwin, LTD., 1929), v.

[54] Michael Liston, “Scientific Realism and Antirealism”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed January 12, 2017, http://www.iep.utm.edu/sci-real/

[55] Saliba, Islamic Science and the European Renaissance, 247.

[56] Muhammad al-Ghazālī, second introduction to The Incoherence of the Philosophers, trans. Michael E. Marmura (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2000), 5-6.

[57] Ibid, religious preface, 3.

[58] Pervez Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality (London: Zed Books Ltd., 1991), 105.

[59] Ibid, 120-121.

[60] Ibid, 169-171.

[61] “The tendency to look for evidence in favor of one’s controversial hypothesis and not to look for disconfirming evidence, or to pay insufficient attention to it.” –  Bradley Dowden, “Fallacies,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed February 21, 2017, http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#ConfirmationBias

[62] Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science, 11.

[63] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy with Selections from the Objections and Replies, ed. John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 103.

[64] Ibid, 37.

[65] Descartes’ attempt to reconcile his circular reasoning simply amounted to demarcating between immediate knowledge and recollected knowledge:

Lastly, as to the fact that I was not guilty of circularity when I said that the only reason we have for being sure that we clearly and distinctly perceive is true is the fact that God exists, but that we are sure that God exists only because we perceive this clearly: I have already given an adequate explanation of this point in my reply to the Second Objections, where I made a distinction between what we in fact perceive clearly and what we remember having perceived clearly on a previous occasion. To begin with, we are sure that God exists because we attend to the arguments which prove this; but subsequently it is enough for us to remember that we perceived something clearly in order for us to be certain that it is true. This would not be sufficient if we did not know that God exists and is not a deceiver. – Ibid, 106.

In summary, ascertaining the existence of God can be made certain within the moment, but the memory of coming to that conclusion can only be made certain by believing in God. However, the solution is superficial in that it presumes that one’s memory is already reliable enough to recall having ascertained God’s existence with certainty prior to believing in Him.

[66] Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science, 105-106.

[67] Hoodbhoy quotes from W. Montgomery Watt, The Faith and Practice of Al-Ghazzali (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1953), 33.

[68] Al-Ghazālī, Incoherence, 8-9.

[69] Ibid, 10-11.

[70] Ibid, 162.

[71] Al-Ghazālī, Deliverance from Error (al-Munqidh min al-Dalāl), trans. Richard J. Mccarthy, S.J. (Boston: Twayne, 1980), 8-9. Accessed February 14, 2017, https://www.aub.edu.lb/fas/cvsp/Documents/reading_selections/CVSP%20202/Al-ghazali.pdf

[72] Ibid, 9.

[73] Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science, 121.

[74] Abdelhamid Ibrahim Sabra, “The Appropriation and Subsequent Naturalization of Greek Science in Medieval Islam: A Preliminary Statement”, History of Science 25 (1987), 240.

[75] Ibid, 239-240.

[76] Ibid, 239.

[77] Perhaps this should not be surprising given that Sabra did not intend for his thesis to be seen as comprehensive or for Al-Ghazālī to shoulder complete responsibility for the decline. He further claims that it was only “meant as a relevant and possibly illuminating observation that might help in future research by directing our attention in a certain direction rather than others” – Ibid, 240-241.

[78] Ragep, “Freeing Astronomy,” 59-60.

[79] Ibid, 60.

[80] Ibn Khaldūn, The Muqaddimah V.3, trans. Franz Rosenthal (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967), 251.

[81] Saliba, Islamic Science and European Renaissance, 239.

[82] Ibid, 240.

[83] Açikgenç, Islamic Scientific Tradition in History, 28.

[84] For a more thorough discussion on what Al-Ghazālī considers ‘useful’ and ‘blameworthy,’ refer to Che Zarrina Sa’ari, “Classification of Sciences: A Comparative Study of liJyii’ culum aI-din and al-Risiilah al-laduniyyah”, Intellectual Discourse 7(1) (Gombak: IIUM Press, 1999), 53-77.

[85] Dewey, Experience and Nature, 11.

Disclaimer: The views, opinions, findings, and conclusions expressed in these papers and articles are strictly those of the authors. Furthermore, Yaqeen does not endorse any of the personal views of the authors on any platform. Our team is diverse on all fronts allowing for constant enriching dialogue that helps us produce only the finest research.

Asadullah Ali

Bachelors of Arts from Benedictine University in Western Philosophy, Masters from the International Islamic University of Malaysia in Philosophy, Phd. Candidate at University of Georgia in Islamic Studies.