Sunday, 1 February 2009

Science and Islam

Here is the Sunday Times review of two new books on Islam and science. One of the authors, Ehsan Masood is a colleague of my husband's on Radio 4's Home Planet and the book is the tie-in to Ehsan's new BBC series. The books explore the golden age of Islamic science, in which, among other things, the astrolabe (depicted above) was invented. They note, in the words of the reviewer that
'just about everything that the western world knew of the celestial sphere in the 16th century had come to it via the Arabs, who translated and refined Ptolemy's works between the 9th and the 13th centuries. And they didn't just read Ptolemy; they added to and challenged him, with data gathered at observatories such as the one established in the 820s in Baghdad by the greatest of the “scientific” rulers, al-Mamun of the Abbasid caliphate'.
The reviewer goes on to note,
'One can't read these two lucid accounts without becoming acutely aware of the contrast between the former Islamic supremacy in science and its parlous state today. This contrast brings to mind the “Needham question”, which the English biochemist Joseph Needham posed in the parallel case of ancient China's technological and scientific superiority. Why is the West, not the East, now at the heart of science?

The answer is complex, but must partly lie in the more doctrinaire Ottoman theocracy that eventually succeeded the Abbasids at the end of the 13th century. The Ottoman sultans frowned on printing and forbade clocks because the muezzins were the keepers of sacred time. As Lyons shows, the irony is that the Arabs were once leaders in both astronomical and technological time-keeping, precisely because of the importance of prayer times.

In any event, by the mid-19th century the tables had turned. Instead of westerners marvelling at eastern learning, it was Ottoman ambassadors to Europe who were reporting back on western technological wonders to a country that had few roads and no trains or telephones. Many worried, too, that an acceptance of the western approach to science would mean abandoning Islamic principles. The result is that there have been only two Nobel laureates from Islamic countries, and, as Masood says, the scientific performance today of the members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference - many of them wealthy oil states - “is not far off that of some of the poorest countries of the world”.