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Contemporary Islam is not known for its engagement in the modern scientific project. But it is heir to a legendary “Golden Age” of Arabic science frequently invoked by commentators hoping to make Muslims and Westerners more respectful and understanding of each other. President Obama, for instance, in his June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, praised Muslims for their historical scientific and intellectual contributions to civilization:

It was Islam that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.

Such tributes to the Arab world’s era of scientific achievement are generally made in service of a broader political point, as they usually precede discussion of the region’s contemporary problems. They serve as an implicit exhortation: the great age of Arab science demonstrates that there is no categorical or congenital barrier to tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and advancement in the Islamic Middle East.

To anyone familiar with this Golden Age, roughly spanning the eighth through the thirteenth centuries a.d., the disparity between the intellectual achievements of the Middle East then and now — particularly relative to the rest of the world — is staggering indeed. In his 2002 book What Went Wrong?, historian Bernard Lewis notes that “for many centuries the world of Islam was in the forefront of human civilization and achievement.” “Nothing in Europe,” notes Jamil Ragep, a professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma, “could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600.” Algebra, algorithm, alchemy, alcohol, alkali, nadir, zenith, coffee, and lemon: these words all derive from Arabic, reflecting Islam’s contribution to the West.

Today, however, the spirit of science in the Muslim world is as dry as the desert. Pakistani physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy laid out the grim statistics in a 2007 Physics Today article: Muslim countries have nine scientists, engineers, and technicians per thousand people, compared with a world average of forty-one. In these nations, there are approximately 1,800 universities, but only 312 of those universities have scholars who have published journal articles. Of the fifty most-published of these universities, twenty-six are in Turkey, nine are in Iran, three each are in Malaysia and Egypt, Pakistan has two, and Uganda, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, and Azerbaijan each have one.

There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but only two scientists from Muslim countries have won Nobel Prizes in science (one for physics in 1979, the other for chemistry in 1999). Forty-six Muslim countries combined contribute just 1 percent of the world’s scientific literature; Spain and India each contribute more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries taken together. In fact, although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years. “Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West,” Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has observed, “for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading.”

Comparative metrics on the Arab world tell the same story. Arabs comprise 5 percent of the world’s population, but publish just 1.1 percent of its books, according to the U.N.’s 2003 Arab Human Development Report. Between 1980 and 2000, Korea granted 16,328 patents, while nine Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E., granted a combined total of only 370, many of them registered by foreigners. A study in 1989 found that in one year, the United States published 10,481 scientific papers that were frequently cited, while the entire Arab world published only four. This may sound like the punch line of a bad joke, but when Nature magazine published a sketch of science in the Arab world in 2002, its reporter identified just three scientific areas in which Islamic countries excel: desalination, falconry, and camel reproduction. The recent push to establish new research and science institutions in the Arab world — described in these pages by Waleed Al-Shobakky (see “Petrodollar Science,” Fall 2008) — clearly still has a long way to go.

Given that Arabic science was the most advanced in the world up until about the thirteenth century, it is tempting to ask what went wrong — why it is that modern science did not arise from Baghdad or Cairo or Córdoba. We will turn to this question later, but it is important to keep in mind that the decline of scientific activity is the rule, not the exception, of civilizations. While it is commonplace to assume that the scientific revolution and the progress of technology were inevitable, in fact the West is the single sustained success story out of many civilizations with periods of scientific flourishing. Like the Muslims, the ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations, both of which were at one time far more advanced than the West, did not produce the scientific revolution.

Nevertheless, while the decline of Arabic civilization is not exceptional, the reasons for it offer insights into the history and nature of Islam and its relationship with modernity. Islam’s decline as an intellectual and political force was gradual but pronounced: while the Golden Age was extraordinarily productive, with the contributions made by Arabic thinkers often original and groundbreaking, the past seven hundred years tell a very different story.

Original Contributions of Arabic Science
A preliminary caution must be noted about both parts of the term “Arabic science.” This is, first, because the scientists discussed here were not all Arab Muslims. Indeed, most of the greatest thinkers of the era were not ethnically Arab. This is not surprising considering that, for several centuries throughout the Middle East, Muslims were a minority (a trend that only began to change at the end of the tenth century). The second caution about “Arabic science” is that it was not science as we are familiar with it today. Pre-modern science, while not blind to utility, sought knowledge primarily in order to understand philosophical questions concerned with meaning, being, the good, and so on. Modern science, by contrast, grew out of a revolution in thought that reoriented politics around individual comfort through the mastery of nature. Modern science dismisses ancient metaphysical questions as (to borrow Francis Bacon’s words) the pursuit of pleasure and vanity. Whatever modern science owes to Arabic science, the intellectual activity of the medieval Islamic world was not of the same kind as the European scientific revolution, which came after a radical break from ancient natural philosophy. Indeed, even though we use the term “science” for convenience, it is important to remember that this word was not coined until the nineteenth century; the closest word in Arabic — ilm — means “knowledge,” and not necessarily that of the natural world.

Still, there are two reasons why it makes sense to refer to scientific activity of the Golden Age as Arabic. The first is that most of the philosophical and scientific work at the time was eventually translated into Arabic, which became the language of most scholars in the region, regardless of ethnicity or religious background. And second, the alternatives — “Middle Eastern science” or “Islamic science” — are even less accurate. This is in part because very little is known about the personal backgrounds of these thinkers. But it is also because of another caution we must keep in mind about this subject, which ought to be footnoted to every broad assertion made about the Golden Age: surprisingly little is known for certain even about the social and historical context of this era. Abdelhamid I. Sabra, a now-retired professor of the history of Arabic science who taught at Harvard, described his field to the New York Times in 2001 as one that “hasn’t even begun yet.”

That said, the field has advanced far enough to convincingly demonstrate that Arabic civilization contributed much more to the development of science than the passive transmission to the West of ancient thought and of inventions originating elsewhere (such as the numeral system from India and papermaking from China). For one thing, the scholarly revival in Abbasid Baghdad (751-1258) that resulted in the translation of almost all the scientific works of the classical Greeks into Arabic is nothing to scoff at. But beyond their translations of (and commentaries upon) the ancients, Arabic thinkers made original contributions, both through writing and methodical experimentation, in such fields as philosophy, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, geography, physics, optics, and mathematics.

Perhaps the most oft-repeated claim about the Golden Age is that Muslims invented algebra. This claim is largely true: initially inspired by Greek and Indian works, the Persian al-Khwarizmi (died 850) wrote a book from whose title we get the term algebra. The book starts out with a mathematical introduction, and proceeds to explain how to solve then-commonplace issues involving trade, inheritance, marriage, and slave emancipations. (Its methods involve no equations or algebraic symbols, instead using geometrical figures to solve problems that today would be solved using algebra.) Despite its grounding in practical affairs, this book is the primary source that contributed to the development of the algebraic system that we know today.

The Golden Age also saw advances in medicine. One of the most famous thinkers in the history of Arabic science, and considered among the greatest of all medieval physicians, was Rhazes (also known as al-Razi). Born in present-day Tehran, Rhazes (died 925) was trained in Baghdad and became the director of two hospitals. He identified smallpox and measles, writing a treatise on them that became influential beyond the Middle East and into nineteenth-century Europe. Rhazes was the first to discover that fever is a defense mechanism. And he was the author of an encyclopedia of medicine that spanned twenty-three volumes. What is most striking about his career, as Ehsan Masood points out in Science and Islam, is that Rhazes was the first to seriously challenge the seeming infallibility of the classical physician Galen. For example, he disputed Galen’s theory of humors, and he conducted a controlled experiment to see if bloodletting, which was the most common medical procedure up until the nineteenth century, actually worked as a medical treatment. (He found that it did.) Rhazes provides a clear instance of a thinker explicitly questioning, and empirically testing, the widely-accepted theories of an ancient giant, while making original contributions to a field.

Breakthroughs in medicine continued with the physician and philosopher Avicenna (also known as Ibn-Sina; died 1037), whom some consider the most important physician since Hippocrates. He authored the Canon of Medicine, a multi-volume medical survey that became the authoritative reference book for doctors in the region, and — once translated into Latin — a staple in the West for six centuries. The Canon is a compilation of medical knowledge and a manual for drug testing, but it also includes Avicenna’s own discoveries, including the infectiousness of tuberculosis.

Like the later European Renaissance, the Arabic Golden Age also had many polymaths who excelled in and advanced numerous fields. One of the earliest such polymaths was al-Farabi (also known as Alpharabius, died ca. 950), a Baghdadi thinker who, in addition to his prolific writing on many aspects of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, also wrote on physics, psychology, alchemy, cosmology, music, and much else. So esteemed was he that he came to be known as the “Second Teacher” — second greatest, that is, after Aristotle. Another great polymath was al-Biruni (died 1048), who wrote 146 treatises totaling 13,000 pages in virtually every scientific field. His major work, The Description of India, was an anthropological work on Hindus. One of al-Biruni’s most notable accomplishments was the near-accurate measurement of the Earth’s circumference using his own trigonometric method; he missed the correct measurement of 24,900 miles by only 200 miles. (However, unlike Rhazes, Avicenna, and al-Farabi, al-Biruni’s works were never translated into Latin and thus did not have much influence beyond the Arabic world.) Another of the most brilliant minds of the Golden Age was the physicist and geometrician Alhazen (also known as Ibn al-Haytham; died 1040). Although his greatest legacy is in optics — he showed the flaws in the theory of extramission, which held that our eyes emit energy that makes it possible for us to see — he also did work in astronomy, mathematics, and engineering. And perhaps the most renowned scholar of the late Golden Age was Averroës (also known as Ibn Rushd; died 1198), a philosopher, theologian, physician, and jurist best known for his commentaries on Aristotle. The 20,000 pages he wrote over his lifetime included works in philosophy, medicine, biology, physics, and astronomy.

Why Arabic Science Thrived
What prompted scientific scholarship to flourish where and when it did? What were the conditions that incubated these important Arabic-speaking scientific thinkers? There is, of course, no single explanation for the development of Arabic science, no single ruler who inaugurated it, no single culture that fueled it. As historian David C. Lindberg puts it in The Beginnings of Western Science (1992), Arabic science thrived for as long as it did thanks to “an incredibly complex concatenation of contingent circumstances.”

Scientific activity was reaching a peak when Islam was the dominant civilization in the world. So one important factor in the rise of the scholarly culture of the Golden Age was its material backdrop, provided by the rise of a powerful and prosperous empire. By the year 750, the Arabs had conquered Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, and much of North Africa, Central Asia, Spain, and the fringes of China and India. Newly opened routes connecting India and the Eastern Mediterranean spurred an explosion of wealth through trade, as well as an agricultural revolution.

For the first time since the reign of Alexander the Great, the vast region was united politically and economically. The result was, first, an Arab kingdom under the Umayyad caliphs (ruling in Damascus from 661 to 750) and then an Islamic empire under the Abbasid caliphs (ruling in Baghdad from 751 to 1258), which saw the most intellectually productive age in Arab history. The rise of the first centralized Islamic state under the Abbasids profoundly shaped life in the Islamic world, transforming it from a tribal culture with little literacy to a dynamic empire. To be sure, the vast empire was theologically and ethnically diverse; but the removal of political barriers that previously divided the region meant that scholars from different religious and ethnic backgrounds could travel and interact with each other. Linguistic barriers, too, were decreasingly an issue as Arabic became the common idiom of all scholars across the vast realm.

The spread of empire brought urbanization, commerce, and wealth that helped spur intellectual collaboration. Maarten Bosker of Utrecht University and his colleagues explain that in the year 800, while the Latin West (with the exception of Italy) was “relatively backward,” the Arab world was highly urbanized, with twice the urban population of the West. Several large metropolises — including Baghdad, Basra, Wasit, and Kufa — were unified under the Abbasids; they shared a single spoken language and brisk trade via a network of caravan roads. Baghdad in particular, the Abbasid capital, was home to palaces, mosques, joint-stock companies, banks, schools, and hospitals; by the tenth century, it was the largest city in the world.

As the Abbasid empire grew, it also expanded eastward, bringing it into contact with the ancient Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Chinese, and Persian civilizations, the fruits of which it readily enjoyed. (In this era, Muslims found little of interest in the West, and for good reason.) One of the most important discoveries by Muslims was paper, which was probably invented in China around a.d. 105 and brought into the Islamic world starting in the mid-eighth century. The effect of paper on the scholarly culture of Arabic society was enormous: it made the reproduction of books cheap and efficient, and it encouraged scholarship, correspondence, poetry, recordkeeping, and banking.

The arrival of paper also helped improve literacy, which had been encouraged since the dawn of Islam due to the religion’s literary foundation, the Koran. Medieval Muslims took religious scholarship very seriously, and some scientists in the region grew up studying it. Avicenna, for example, is said to have known the entire Koran by heart before he arrived at Baghdad. Might it be fair, then, to say that Islam itself encouraged scientific enterprise? This question provokes wildly divergent answers. Some scholars argue that there are many parts of the Koran and the hadith (the sayings of Muhammad) that exhort believers to think about and try to understand Allah’s creations in a scientific spirit. As one hadith urges, “Seek knowledge, even in China.” But there are other scholars who argue that “knowledge” in the Koranic sense is not scientific knowledge but religious knowledge, and that to conflate such knowledge with modern science is inaccurate and even naïve.

The Gift of Baghdad
But the single most significant reason that Arabic science thrived was the absorption and assimilation of the Greek heritage — a development fueled by the translation movement in Abbasid Baghdad. The translation movement, according to Yale historian and classicist Dimitri Gutas, is “equal in significance to, and belongs to the same narrative as … that of Pericles’ Athens, the Italian Renaissance, or the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” Whether or not one is willing to grant Gutas the comparison, there is no question that the translation movement in Baghdad — which by the year 1000 saw nearly the entire Greek corpus in medicine, mathematics, and natural philosophy translated into Arabic — provided the foundation for inquiry in the sciences. While most of the great thinkers in the Golden Age were not themselves in Baghdad, the Arabic world’s other cultural centers likely would not have thrived without Baghdad’s translation movement. For this reason, even if it is said that the Golden Age of Arabic science encompasses a large region, as a historical event it especially demands an explanation of the success of Abbasid Baghdad.

The rise to power of the Abbasid caliphate in the year 750 was, as Bernard Lewis put it in The Arabs in History (1950), “a revolution in the history of Islam, as important a turning point as the French and Russian revolutions in the history of the West.” Instead of tribe and ethnicity, the Abbasids made religion and language the defining characteristics of state identity. This allowed for a relatively cosmopolitan society in which all Muslims could participate in cultural and political life. Their empire lasted until 1258, when the Mongols sacked Baghdad and executed the last Abbasid caliph (along with a large part of the Abbasid population). During the years that the Abbasid empire thrived, it deeply influenced politics and society from Tunisia to India.

The Greek-Arabic translation movement in Abbasid Baghdad, like other scholarly efforts elsewhere in the Islamic world, was centered less in educational institutions than in the households of great patrons seeking social prestige. But Baghdad was distinctive: its philosophical and scientific activity enjoyed a high level of cultural support. As Gutas explains in Greek Thought, Arabic Culture (1998), the translation movement, which mostly flourished from the middle of the eighth century to the end of the tenth, was a self-perpetuating enterprise supported by “the entire elite of Abbasid society: caliphs and princes, civil servants and military leaders, merchants and bankers, and scholars and scientists; it was not the pet project of any particular group in the furtherance of their restricted agenda.” This was an anomaly in the Islamic world, where for the most part, as Ehsan Masood argues, science was “supported by individual patrons, and when these patrons changed their priorities, or when they died, any institutions that they might have built often died with them.”

There seem to have been three salient factors inspiring the translation movement. First, the Abbasids found scientific Greek texts immensely useful for a sort of technological progress — solving common problems to make daily life easier. The Abbasids did not bother translating works in subjects such as poetry, history, or drama, which they regarded as useless or inferior. Indeed, science under Islam, although in part an extension of Greek science, was much less theoretical than that of the ancients. Translated works in mathematics, for example, were eventually used for engineering and irrigation, as well as in calculation for intricate inheritance laws. And translating Greek works on medicine had obvious practical use.

Astrology was another Greek subject adapted for use in Baghdad: the Abbasids turned to it for proof that the caliphate was the divinely ordained successor to the ancient Mesopotamian empires — although such claims were sometimes eyed warily, because the idea that celestial information can predict the future clashed with Islamic teaching that only God has such knowledge.

There were also practical religious reasons to study Greek science. Mosque timekeepers found it useful to study astronomy and trigonometry to determine the direction to Mecca (qibla), the times for prayer, and the beginning of Ramadan. For example, the Arabic astronomer Ibn al-Shatir (died 1375) also served as a religious official, a timekeeper (muwaqqit), for the Great Mosque of Damascus. Another religious motivation for translating Greek works was their value for the purposes of rhetoric and what we would today call ideological warfare: Aristotle’s Topics, a treatise on logic, was used to aid in religious disputation with non-Muslims and in the conversion of nonbelievers to Islam (which was state policy under the Abbasids).

The second factor central to the rise of the translation movement was that Greek thought had already been diffused in the region, slowly and over a long period, before the Abbasids and indeed before the advent of Islam. Partly for this reason, the Abbasid Baghdad translation movement was not like the West’s subsequent rediscovery of ancient Athens, in that it was in some respects a continuation of Middle Eastern Hellenism. Greek thought spread as early as Alexander the Great’s conquests of Asia and North Africa in the 300s b.c., and Greek centers, such as in Alexandria and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (238-140 b.c., in what is now Afghanistan), were productive centers of learning even amid Roman conquest. By the time of the Arab conquests, the Greek tongue was known throughout the vast region, and it was the administrative language of Syria and Egypt. After the arrival of Christianity, Greek thought was spread further by missionary activity, especially by Nestorian Christians. Centuries later, well into the rule of the Abbasids in Baghdad, many of these Nestorians — some of them Arabs and Arabized Persians who eventually converted to Islam — contributed technical skill for the Greek-Arabic translation movement, and even filled many translation-oriented administrative posts in the Abbasid government.

While practical utility and the influence of Hellenism help explain why science could develop, both were true of most of the Arabic world during the Golden Age and so cannot account for the Abbasid translation movement in particular. As Gutas argues, the distinguishing factor that led to that movement was the attempt by the Abbasid rulers to legitimize their rule by co-opting Persian culture, which at the time deeply revered Greek thought. The Baghdad region in which the Abbasids established themselves included a major Persian population, which played an instrumental role in the revolution that ended the previous dynasty; thus, the Abbasids made many symbolic and political gestures to ingratiate themselves with the Persians. In an effort to enfold this constituency into a reliable ruling base, the Abbasids incorporated Zoroastrianism and the imperial ideology of the defunct Persian Sasanian Empire, more than a century gone, into their political platform. The Abbasid rulers sought to establish the idea that they were the successors not to the defeated Arab Umayyads who had been overthrown in 650 but to the region’s previous imperial dynasty, the Sasanians.

This incorporation of Sasanian ideology led to the translation of Greek texts into Arabic because doing so was seen as recovering not just Greek, but Persian knowledge. The Persians believed that sacred ancient Zoroastrian texts were scattered by Alexander the Great’s destruction of Persepolis in 330 b.c., and were subsequently appropriated by the Greeks. By translating ancient Greek texts into Arabic, Persian wisdom could be recovered.

Initially, Arab Muslims themselves did not seem to care much about the translation movement and the study of science, feeling that they had “no ethnic or historical stake in it,” as Gutas explains. This began to change during the reign of al-Mamun (died 833), the seventh Abbasid caliph. For the purposes of opposing the Byzantine Empire, al-Mamun reoriented the translation movement as a means to recovering Greek, rather than Persian, learning. In the eyes of Abbasid Muslims of this era, the ancient Greeks did not have a pristine reputation — they were not Muslims, after all — but at least they were not tainted with Christianity. The fact that the hated Christian Byzantines did not embrace the ancient Greeks, though, led the Abbasids to warm to them. This philhellenism in the centuries after al-Mamun marked a prideful distinction between the Arabs — who considered themselves “champions of the truth,” as Gutas puts it — and their benighted Christian contemporaries. One Arab philosopher, al-Kindi (died 870), even devised a genealogy that presented Yunan, the ancestor of the ancient Greeks, as the brother of Qahtan, the ancestor of the Arabs.

Until its collapse in the Mongol invasion of 1258, the Abbasid caliphate was the greatest power in the Islamic world and oversaw the most intellectually productive movement in Arab history. The Abbasids read, commented on, translated, and preserved Greek and Persian works that may have been otherwise lost. By making Greek thought accessible, they also formed the foundation of the Arabic Golden Age. Major works of philosophy and science far from Baghdad — in Spain, Egypt, and Central Asia — were influenced by Greek-Arabic translations, both during and after the Abbasids. Indeed, even if it is a matter of conjecture to what extent the rise of science in the West depended on Arabic science, there is no question that the West benefited from both the preservation of Greek works and from original Arabic scholarship that commented on them.

Why the Golden Age Faded…Read the full article…www.thenewatlantis.com

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  • Great website, congratulation
    How you plan to encourage a wide spectrum from different intellectual ideas to contribute