Both the Islamic world and Western Christianity had access to the best products of the Greek and Roman intellectual tradition—the West somewhat later, as compared to Islam. Both in Islam and in Christianity this has triggered an unprecedented intellectual movement—again, in Christianity delayed by 200-300 years. Just as this intellectual movement began to decline in Islam, in the 12th century, the analogous movement in Western Christianity started to take off and soon resulted in the ‘renaissance of the twelfth century’, an outburst of creativity (Huff, 2017, p. 111), leading to further intellectual progress, and resulting in, ultimately, the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.
I tried to show that one of the main factors (maybe the main factor) responsible for these contrasting developments was that while Western Europe was fundamentally open towards science and philosophy, the Islamic world was not. As in both societies religion played an exceedingly important role, the openness of society for science and philosophy was strongly determined by factors residing in religion. Important figures like al-Ashari and al-Ghazali in Islam and Thomas Aquinas and William of Conches in Christianity did play a role but ultimately differences between the religions Islam and Christianity were the decisive factors.
Many interesting questions remain to be answered. One particular puzzle is: how could science initially prosper in Islam—during its “Golden Age”—given its strongly anti-scientific tendencies which became apparent later?
As Toby Huff writes in his book The Rise of Early Modern Science, the rate of conversions to Islam increased in the 10th century. As a result of these conversions, the number of Christian scholars who had earlier been able to debate non-conformist ideas decreased and the number of Muslim scholars correspondingly grew. Ideas of classical authors like Aristotle were now embraced and debated by Muslim scientists and philosophers. These ideas—for example Aristotle’s idea about the eternity of the world or the idea that the world is governed by laws of nature—sometimes contradicted Islamic ideas. As these ideas were now expressed by Muslims, they began to be seen more and more as a corrosive factor, a threat to the religion of Islam, and even as heretic. Such Muslim scholars became the target of Asharite attacks starting in the 10th century or they became Asharites themselves—as al-Ghazali himself did.
This development sounded the death knell of the Islamic “Golden Age”. Islamic domains still produced brilliant scientists again and again for some time, but scientific inquiry never recovered. The gap between science in the West and in Islam grew, and by the 17th century it was huge. While in Europe the Scientific Revolution was taking place—scientists making one important discovery after the other, publishing books about their discoveries, and having flourishing communication with other scientists in different countries—in the Ottoman Empire, the biggest Islamic country, Arabic language book printing was forbidden and there was no attempt to translate works of European scientists like Galileo, Kepler or Newton. As described by Toby Huff in his book Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, astronomical observatories, like the one built by Ulugh Beg is Samarkand and the Istanbul observatory were destroyed. New tools like the telescope became available in the Islamic domain but were not used to learn more about the Universe. In contrast, Galileo used a telescope to observe the Moon and the planets immediately after the telescope was discovered in 1608.
In short, the Islamic domain ceased to produce new knowledge about the world and it wasn’t interested in new knowledge acquired by others. As a result, it was left far behind in scientific progress for hundreds of years.
The spirit of reasoned inquiry that developed within natural philosophy in the West established a culture of probing and investigating nature that spilled over into the physical sciences where it became a regular feature of Western thought. The neglect of natural philosophy in Islam, and frequently open hostility towards it, eventually led to a stagnation in both natural philosophy and science (Grant, 2007, p. 93)
Is it possible that science in the Islamic domain can recover and regain its former glory? In my view it is improbable in the foreseeable future. Science and philosophy during the “Golden Age” was possible because religion wasn’t fully prepared to act against the “foreign” sciences arriving via the translations of Greek authors. The “Golden Age” ended when religion won against the falasifa, the Muslim natural philosophers. Since then, for the last 800 years or so, religion has ruled the Muslim mind almost without challenge. This continues to the present: religion is still the most potent force in Islamic countries or among Muslims in non-Islamic countries. Turning this around would be like putting the genie back into the bottle.
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