The Muslim Art of Science
By John Noble Wilford
May 20, 2011
In the thousand years between the decline of Rome and the springtime of the Renaissance, science and other branches of learning took a holiday throughout Europe. It was a benighted time in the history most of us raced through in school, skipping lightly through Charlemagne and Richard the Lion-Hearted, the Norman Conquest and the Crusades, and arriving none too soon at the time of Leonardo and Michelangelo, Columbus and da Gama, Erasmus and Luther.
Ignored for the most part in Eurocentric accounts is the parallel culture that rose in the Middle East with the swift spread of Islam after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632. Lands from Spain to Persia and beyond fell to the Muslim sword, and in time some ambitious rulers made their palaces sanctuaries of learning, the think tanks of their day, where astronomers, mathematicians, physicians and philosophers were allowed to venture beyond the received word and to practice science as an empirical inquiry.
Jim al-Khalili, an Iraqi-born physicist who has lived in Britain since 1979, has taken on the task of elevating this neglected period to its rightful place in history. His new book, “The House of Wisdom,” reflects a depth of research, an ability to tell a fascinating story well and fair-mindedness where minds too often are closed.
Al-Khalili positions himself with care, more or less above the clash of civilizations but with unconcealed pride in his roots. He is the son of a British mother and a Shiite Muslim father of Persian descent, and was educated in England. As a self-described atheist, he declares up front, “My interest in Islam is cultural rather than spiritual.” He prefers the more neutral term “Arabic science” to “Arab science.” Some of the notable scientists were Christians, Jews and Persians, after all, and they had in common Arabic as the lingua franca. He also reminds readers that in early Islam there was no bitter conflict between religion and science and that the Koran encouraged the close study of all God’s works.
In this spirit, the author retrieves for us several dozen all but forgotten men of science and philosophy to correct the negative stereotype of Islam “that contrasts with our Western secular, rational, tolerant and enlightened society.” A thousand years ago, he emphasizes, “the roles were reversed.”
Though Arabic science was productive for more than 500 years, its golden age spanned the 9th and 11th centuries. At the head of the author’s list of geniuses are Abu Ali al-Hassan ibn al-Haytham, Abu Rayhan Muhammad al-Biruni and Abu Ali al-Hussein ibn Sina, better known in the West as Avicenna. He ranks Ibn al-Haytham the greatest physicist between Archimedes and Newton, and Ibn Sina the “colossus of philosophy between Aristotle and Descartes.” Ibn Sina also wrote extensively on Greek, Persian and Indian medicine, conducted his own research on contagious diseases and anatomy, and was well ahead of his time with the insight that light is composed of particles, which Newton later described and Einstein proved. Al-Biruni contributed significant advances in calculus and trigonometry and boldly criticized Aristotle for relying on pure thought and reasoning, which often led to mistakes, instead of careful observation and experimentation, an early appreciation of the modern scientific method.
One of the few widely familiar names cited by al-Khalili makes a mere cameo appearance. Omar Khayyam, better known as a poet and the author of “The Rubaiyat,” was also a brilliant mathematician who wrote a treatise on algebra in which he complained of society’s hindrances to scientific investigation, for its confusing “the true with the false” and not using what it knew of the sciences “except for base and material purposes.” Sounds familiar.
bu Jafar Abdullah al-Mamun, caliph of Bagdad in the early 9th century, was indispensable to this intellectual flowering. The city was only four decades old but had already become the largest in the world. In this vibrant setting, al-Mamun established an institute, the House of Wisdom, the likes of which had not been seen since the great library at Alexandria. The author compares Baghdad in those days to Renaissance Florence or Athens in the age of Pericles.
At first, the caliph followed his great-grandfather’s practice of pushing his savants for Arabic translations of Greek books in the country’s possession, a legacy of Hellenistic rule for several centuries after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Over the next two centuries, more works of Aristotle, Pythagoras, Archimedes and Hippocrates, as well as Persian and Indian thinkers, were rendered into Arabic. It became a lucrative business, abetted by advances in papermaking learned from captive Chinese soldiers. Other wealthy patrons, not only the caliph, supported the translation movement, al-Khalili points out, “in part for the practical benefits it brought them in finance, agriculture, engineering projects and medicine, and in part because this patronage quickly turned into a de rigueur cultural activity that defined their standing in society.” A modern budget proposal from a science-funding agency could not have put it better.
The upshot was, while the Greek works in particular were disappearing in Europe, they were being preserved in Arabic to be retranslated later into Latin for a rebirth of “lost” knowledge. This is one half of the point the author makes frequently in the text and, in boldface, as the book’s subtitle.
The other half is that contrary to some doubters, the Arab interest in learning extended well beyond translations: thinkers working alone or in observatories and houses of wisdom were conducting original research during “the world’s most impressive period of scholarship and learning since ancient Greece.” Accordingly, al-Khalili writes that al-Mamun stands as “the greatest patron of science in the cavalcade of Islamic rulers.”
Sometimes al-Khalili, like a lawyer who suspects a jury of unyielding skepticism, strains to give stature to the leading lights of Arabic science in the Middle Ages. But modern historians of science agree that more attention should be given to the Arab contribution to the preservation and expansion of knowledge at this critical period, and the author has done so in considerable detail and with rising passion.
But that was then, and al-Khalili is obligated to end on an inescapable but deflating note: science today is in a chronic state of neglect in the Arab world and the broader Islamic culture of more than one billion people. Al-Khalili spreads the blame widely, citing inadequate financing for research and education, sclerotic bureaucracies, religious conservatism, even an ingrained fear of science. The Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, perhaps the greatest Muslim scientist of the last century, won a Nobel Prize in 1979 and did what he could to promote a scientific renaissance among his people, without success. “Of all civilizations on this planet, science is weakest in the lands of Islam,” Salam said in despair. “The dangers of this weakness cannot be overemphasized since the honorable survival of a society depends directly on its science and technology in the condition of the present age.”
By recounting Arabic science’s luminous past, al-Khalili says, he hopes to instill a sense of pride that will “propel the importance of scientific enquiry back to where it belongs: at the very heart of what defines a civilized and enlightened society.”