December 12, 2007
Friedrich Nietzsche once noted that “there is no such thing as science ‘without any presuppositions.’…A philosophy, a ‘faith,’ must always be there first, so that science can acquire from it a direction, a meaning, a limit, a method, a right to exist.” (Thomas Woods made much of this assertion in his excellent book.) It may be jarring to those who believe that faith and reason are at odds, and that religions are all the same, but it is nevertheless a historical fact that modern science took its presuppositions from Christianity, and that Islam gave modern science no impetus at all.
At Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI observed that “for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” The one hundred Muslim authorities who wrote an open letter to the pope replied that this was an oversimplification, and that it is wrong “to conclude that Muslims believe in a capricious God who might…command us to evil.” (See the pope’s reply here.)
The pope was not saying that Allah would command his people to do evil, but that Allah might change the concepts of good and evil. In other words, Allah might always enjoin justice and kindness, but justice and kindness might have very different meanings.
The reason why this is so important for science is that Muslims believe that Allah’s hand is unfettered—he can do anything. The Qur’an explicitly refutes the Judeo-Christian view of God as a God of reason when it says: “The Jews say: Allah’s hand is fettered. Their hands are fettered and they are accursed for saying so.” (5:64) In other words, it is heresy to say that God operates by certain natural laws that we can understand through reason. This argument was played out throughout Islamic history.
Muslim theologians argued during the long controversy with the Mu‘tazilite sect, which exalted human reason, that Allah was not bound to govern the universe according to consistent and observable laws. “He cannot be questioned concerning what He does.” (Qur’an 21:23).
Accordingly, there was no point to observing the workings of the physical world; there was no reason to expect that any pattern to its workings would be consistent, or even discernable. If Allah could not be counted on to be consistent, why waste time observing the order of things? It could change tomorrow. Stanley Jaki, a Catholic priest and physicist, explains that it was al-Ghazali, the philosopher who the authors of the open letter recommended to the pope, who “denounced natural laws, the very objective of science, as a blasphemous constraint upon the free will of Allah.” Jaki adds elsewhere that “Muslim mystics decried the notion of scientific law (as formulated by Aristotle) as blasphemous and irrational, depriving as it does the Creator of his freedom.” Social scientist Rodney Stark notes that Islam does not have “a conception of God appropriate to underwrite the rise of science….Allah is not presented as a lawful creator but is conceived of as an extremely active God who intrudes in the world as he deems it appropriate. This prompted the formation of a major theological bloc within Islam that condemns all efforts to formulate natural laws as blasphemy in that they deny Allah’s freedom to act.”
The great twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides explained orthodox Islamic cosmology in these terms:
Human intellect does not perceive any reason why a body should be in a certain place instead of being in another. In the same manner they say that reason admits the possibility that an existing being should be larger or smaller than it really is, or that it should be different in form and position from what it really is; e.g., a man might have the height of a mountain, might have several heads, and fly in the air; or an elephant might be as small as an insect, or an insect as huge as an elephant.
This method of admitting possibilities is applied to the whole Universe. Whenever they affirm that a thing belongs to this class of admitted possibilities, they say that it can have this form and that it is also possible that it be found differently, and that the one form is not more possible than the other; but they do not ask whether the reality confirms their assumption….
[They say] fire causes heat, water causes cold, in accordance with a certain habit; but it is logically not impossible that a deviation from this habit should occur, namely, that fire should cause cold, move downward, and still be fire; that the water should cause heat, move upward, and still be water. On this foundation their whole [intellectual] fabric is constructed.
This fantastical cosmology comes from the Islamic conviction of the absolute sovereignty of Allah. Relatively early in its history, therefore, science in the Islamic world was deprived of the philosophical foundation it needed in order to flourish. Consequently, Professor Jaki observes, “the improvements brought by Muslim scientists to the Greek scientific corpus were never substantial.” The consequences of this have been far-reaching. Jaki details some of them:
More than two hundred years after the construction of the famed Blue Mosque, W. Eton, for many years a resident in Turkey and Russia, found that Turkish architects still could not calculate the lateral pressures of curves. Nor could they understand why the catenary curve, so useful in building ships, could also be useful in drawing blueprints for cupolas. The reign of Suleiman the Magnificent may be memorable for its wealth of gorgeously illustrated manuscripts and princely paraphernalia, but for no items worth mentioning from the viewpoint of science and technology. At the Battle of Lepanto the Turkish navy lacked improvements long in use on French and Italian vessels. Two hundred years later, Turkish artillery was primitive by Western standards. Worse, while in Western Europe the dangers of the use of lead had for some time been clearly realized, lead was still a heavy ingredient in kitchenware used in Turkish lands.
These technological differences abetted the Catholic victory at the Battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571. The Holy League, comprised of the Papal States, the Republic of Venice, Spain, Genoa, and others, defeated the Ottoman Turks in a decisive sea battle that the jihadists hoped would bring Europe within their grasp. Stark explains, “The European galleys not only had far more and far better cannons than did the Turks, but they no longer had their forward fire zone blocked by a high ramming beak—since they meant to blow the Turks out of the water, not ram into them. Firing powerful forward volleys, the Europeans annihilated Ottoman galleys while still rowing toward them; the Turks had to stop and turn sideways to fire, presenting much larger targets.”
In contrast to the dogmatic stagnation of the Islamic world, science was able to flourish in Christian Europe during the same period because Christian scientists were working from assumptions derived from the Bible, which were very different from those of the Qur’an. The Bible assumes that God’s laws of creation are natural laws, a stable and unchanging reality—a sine qua non of scientific investigation.
Christian mathematicians and astronomers believed they could establish mathematical and scientific truths because they believed that God had established the universe according to certain laws—laws that could be discovered through observation and study. St. Thomas Aquinas even goes so far as to assert that “since the principles of certain sciences—of logic, geometry, and arithmetic, for instance—are derived exclusively from the formal principals of things, upon which their essence depends, it follows that God cannot make the contraries of these principles; He cannot make the genus not to be predictable of the species, nor lines drawn from a circle’s center to its circumference not to be equal, nor the three angles of a rectilinear triangle not to be equal to two right angles.” (Summa Contra Gentiles, 25, section 14, emphasis added.)
This is a far cry from Maimonides’ depiction of Muslim philosophers envisioning elephants becoming snakes and fire turning cool. And to be sure, to a pious Muslim of Aquinas’s day, such Christian ideas of an inviolable ordered universe was blasphemy, implying that “Allah’s hand was fettered.” But Christians did not consider it blasphemous in the least. “The rise of science,” Stark explains, “was not an extension of classical learning. It was the natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine: nature exists because it was created by God. In order to love and honor God, it necessary to fully appreciate the wonders of his handiwork. Because God is perfect, that handiwork functions in accord with immutable principles. By the full use of our God-given powers of reason and observation, it ought to be possible to discover those principles….These were the crucial ideas that explain why science arose in Christian Europe and nowhere else.”
Wait a minute: Didn’t modern science originate in the Islamic world?
Readers who received a modern education in a Western country may find Stark’s statement implausible. After all, didn’t modern science begin in the Islamic world? Didn’t Muslims invent algebra, the astrolabe, and the zero? Didn’t Muslims preserve the classics of ancient Greek philosophy while Europe was blinded by a narrow Christian dogmatism? Weren’t the great Islamic empires of the past the bright lights of civilization, while Christian Europe was comparatively barbaric and primitive? “For while [the caliphs] al-Rashid and al-Mamun were delving into Greek and Persian philosophy,” according to historian Philip K. Hitti, “their contemporaries in the West, Charlemagne and his lords, were reportedly dabbling in the art of writing their names….No people in the early Middle Ages contributed to human progress as much as did the Arabs.” (Philip K. Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History.)
In fact, much of this alleged history about Europe’s ignorance and Islam’s civilization is actually myth—and interestingly, a myth fostered by jihad, by Muslim conquests. The astrolabe was developed, if not perfected, long before Muhammad was born. The zero, which is often attributed to Muslims, and what we know today as “Arabic numerals” did not originate in Arabia, but in pre-Islamic India. Aristotle’s work was preserved in Arabic not initially by Muslims, but by Christians like the fifth-century priest Probus of Antioch, who introduced Aristotle to the Arabic-speaking world. (Caesar E. Farah, Islam, sixth edition.) Another Christian, Huneyn ibn-Ishaq, translated many works by Aristotle, Galen, Plato, and Hippocrates into Syriac. His son then translated them into Arabic. (Elias B. Skaff, The Place of the Patriarchs of Antioch in Church History, Manchester, NH: Sophia Press, 1993). Syrian Christian Yahya ibn ‘Adi also translated works of philosophy into Arabic, and wrote one of his own, The Reformation of Morals. His student, another Christian named Abu ‘Ali ‘Isa ibn Zur’a, also translated Aristotle and others from Syriac into Arabic. The first Arabic-language medical treatise was written by a Christian priest and translated into Arabic by a Jewish doctor in 683. The first hospital was founded in Baghdad during the Abbasid caliphate—not by a Muslim, but by a Nestorian Christian.( Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam, p. 78) A pioneering medical school was founded at Gundeshapur in Persia by Assyrian Christians.
In sum, there was a time when it was indeed true that Islamic culture was more advanced than that of Europeans, but that superiority corresponds exactly to the period when Muslims were able to take the achievements of the Byzantines and others that they conquered. But after the Muslim overlords had stripped Jewish and Christian communities of their material and intellectual wealth, Islam went into a period of intellectual decline from which it has not yet recovered.
Certainly Muslims have innovated at high levels. Civilized people owe a debt to Muslim believers like Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, whose pioneering seventh-century treatise on algebra, Al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah, gave algebra its name and enjoyed wide influence in Europe. (Al-Khwarizmi, of course, was following in the pioneering footsteps of Diophantus of Alexandria, who died late in the third Christian century.) Abu Raihan al-Biruni did groundbreaking work on calculating longitude and latitude. The caliph Harun al-Rashid’s son Abu Jafar al-Ma‘mun, who became caliph in 813, established professional standards for physicians and pharmacists. Abu Bakr al-Razi, or Rhazes, wrote lengthy treatises on medicine and alchemy that influenced the development of medical science and chemistry in medieval Europe. The famous Muslim philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina) wrote a medical textbook that was preeminent among European doctors for five centuries—until the 1600s. Prolific scholar Abu ‘Uthman ‘Amr ibn Bahr al-Jahiz wrote more than two hundred books on a multitude of subjects: from politics (The Institution of the Caliphate) and zoology (the seven-volume Book of Animals) to cuisine (Arab Food) and day-to-day living (Sobriety and Mirth; The Art of Keeping One’s Mouth Shut.) (Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History, p. 147.) Mathematician Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham did early and influential work in optics.
But in almost every case, the Islamic scholars were building on what had established by Jews, Christians, or others. And, as Rodney Stark points out, “Islamic scholars achieved significant progress only in terms of specific knowledge, such as certain aspects of astronomy and medicine, which did not require any general theoretical basis. And as time passed, even this sort of progress ceased.”
Adapted from Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t, by Robert Spencer, with permission of the author.