These days, religion and science aren't thought of as easy bedfellows, but as a new three-part series on BBC Four demonstrates, this hasn't always been the case. In Science and Islam, prof. Jim Al-Khalili demonstrates the intimate bond that once existed between the development of science and the rising power of Islam. And along the way he helpfully (if unwittingly) demolishes some myths that have grown up around Islam.
Between the 9th and the 12th centuries, the Islamic world experienced its own scientific enlightenment. By the time of Muhammad's death in 632, Islam had spread through conquest across the Arabian peninsula. By 750 it stretched from the Pyrenees to the Indus. In 762, Baghdad was founded as the capital of the empire on major trade routes running from east and west. It was also around this time that the empire began to rationalise its bureaucracy. According to Al-Khalili the way it tried to avoid the centrifugal forces nibbling at the extremities was by making Arabic the standard, official language. By coincidence, the intimate relationship between Arabic and the Qur'an made the language well-suited to its task.
One of the key instructions regarding the Qur'an is that as the word of God, its text must be meticulously preserved. As a set of religious instructions it needed to be as clear as possible to avoid problems of misinterpretation and understanding. The injunction that each Qur'an be copied clearly, carefully and without changes made written Arabic a precise script. Therefore it was well suited for the language of imperial administration. But its adoption as the empire’s official tongue had the happy unintended effect of providing a common and precise language for its scattered scholastic communities. Administrative rationalisation allowed the geographically isolated savants of Islam to correspond without linguistic barriers getting in the way. As time passed these circles of correspondents circulated ideas and developed new discoveries and ways of thinking, wealthy patrons and the Caliph got involved for their own reasons, such that the Islamic world went through a renaissance of its own.
Medicine was a focus of much of this scientific activity. In the Hadith, the collection of Muhammad’s sayings and deeds, he reportedly said “God did not send down disease without sending a cure”. There were then powerful religious reasons that made medicine a worthwhile scientific pursuit. The empire, bordering Europe and India and on the overland trade routes to China drew on the medical traditions of all three, as well as the herbalism that was (and to an extent, still is) the preserve of Arabic women. Islamic medicine also developed hospitals, introduced the pharmacy and developed tools and masks for surgery. It was also the first to make use of anatomical drawings as surgical aids. The synthesis of traditions and the new practices culminated in Ibn Sina's 1025 encyclopedia, The Canon of Medicine. This landmark work established principles such as diagnosis and cure, and formed the basis of medical knowledge that lasted until the early 19th century.
With the system of patronage, valuable discoveries were made in the course of meeting the ruler’s demands. One achievement of Islamic science, only recently acknowledged by modern scholarship, was its translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics into Arabic some 1,000 years prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. The historian, Ibin Washiyya managed this by realising that the Coptic alphabet, which as a living contemporary language could easily be translated into Arabic, was in fact a descendent of these hieroglyphs. Unfortunately the caliph who sponsored the project was disappointed. Egyptian tombs and stone carvings yielded no hoped-for magical and alchemical secrets.
Islam’s contribution to mathematics is probably its best-known contribution to science. From India Muslim scholars took the numbers system (which, as we saw, was then introduced into mediaeval Europe), and from ancient Greece came geometry. But they did more than just preserve these achievements. They built on them. The noted Persian scholar, al-Khwārizmī, combined the two and opened an entirely new continent of mathematics: algebra. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this scholarship. At a stroke principles of abstract mathematical thought independent of numbers were established with innumerable applications. Equally crucial was the introduction of the decimal point to denote fractions of numbers.
By the end of Science and Islam, Al-Kalili concluded that the great achievement of science’s relationship with Islam was confirming its independence as a mode of thought from religious and local/cultural traditions. Science wasn’t essentially Islamic. Neither was it essentially Indian, Greek or Chinese. It was a synthesis of all these sources. Without this synthesis and the discoveries Islamic scholars built upon it, the subsequent renaissance and enlightenment in Western Europe that came centuries later may never have happened, or at least proceeded at a much slower pace.
But importantly for today, the role Islam played in the history of science demonstrates it is no more barbaric or anti-intellectual than any other major religion. It conclusively disproves the euro-centric and racist contention that nothing of consequence happened outside of Europe that caused it to rise to global prominence from the 16th century onwards. In short, without the Arabic contributions to science modern Europe would look very different to the one we have today.
The next two episodes will be broadcast on BBC Four at 9pm on the 12th and 19th January.