While we are still on the teaching of Maths and Science in English back home in Malaysia and the continuing slaughters of Palestinians by Israelis in Gaza, let's take a break.
The age of brilliance
Popular accounts of the history of science typically show a chronology in which no major scientific advances take place between the ancient Greeks and the European Renaissance. In between, so we are told, western Europe and, by extrapolation, the rest of the world, languished in the Dark Ages for 1,000 years. In fact, for a period stretching over 700 years, the international language of science was Arabic. For this was the language of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, and the official language of the vast Islamic empire that, by the early eighth century, stretched from India to Spain.
I have long been possessed with the strong desire to bring this story to a wider audience. That I do so now lies with my belief that it has never been more timely, nor more resonant, to explore the extent to which western cultural and scientific thought is indebted to the work, 1,000 years ago, of Arabic and Muslim thinkers and scientists.
When I first decided to tell of the scientific achievements in the Golden Age of Islam I had no idea how much interest it would generate. After all, as a British professor of theoretical physics, what did I know about the history of medieval Arabic science?
Perhaps I am being a little disingenuous here. Although an academic, I do devote half my time to broadcasting and popular science writing. In addition, as my surname may betray, I have Arab roots. I was born in Baghdad to an English mother and Iraqi father. I grew up there but left as a teenager when Saddam came to power. We were lucky. We quickly settled in Britain and I haven’t looked back – until recently, when the cultural urge to revisit my heritage beckoned.
Two years down the line, I find myself fronting a major BBC television series, half the way through a book on the subject and invited to give talks around the world.But before I lay out my stall, allow me a few words to counter the inevitable accusations from some quarters that my account will be in some sense “pro-Islamic”; that having grown up in Iraq I see the Muslim world through the rose-tinted glasses of the biased partisan on a mission to show what a wonderful and enlightened religion Islam is. The truth is that I am not religious, yet if Islam emerges from my account in a positive light, as a belief system unencumbered by many of the misconceptions and misinterpretations of today, then so be it.
Sadly, there is no doubt that the term “Islam”, to the ear of many non-Muslims around the world today, too comfortably equates with the modern negative image it has. The implied contrast is of the West as a rational, tolerant and enlightened secular society. This is, of course, not only a lazy view, but also one that makes it difficult to acknowledge that 1,000 years ago the situation was reversed. Think of the Crusades. Who were the “good guys” then?
The Golden Age of the vast Islamic empire took place during the rule of the Abbasids from their capital, Baghdad, which I take to be between the mid-eighth and mid-11th centuries. For most people, this period is known only through the romanticised, exotic tales that run through the Arabian Nights, many of which are based on the time of Harun al Rashid (763–809), the larger-than-life caliph who ruled over this vast empire at the end of the eighth and beginning of the ninth centuries.
But these stories also hint at a period when art, culture and science flourished in Baghdad, a city that would remain the greatest in the world for half a millennium. It was al Rashid’s son, Mamun (786–833), who was to launch the golden age of Arabic science and thus become the greatest of all the Abbasid caliphs.
He is said to have had a vivid and life-changing dream that became the inspiration for his lifelong obsession with science and philosophy. It inspired him to create in Baghdad one of the greatest centres of learning the world has ever seen, known throughout history simply as the House of Wisdom.
Crucially, the story of this astonishing era remains largely untold outside academic circles. This is despite the fact that Arabic scientific knowledge first built upon, and then far surpassed, that of the ancient Greeks, which is far better known.This is also, refreshingly, a story of the positive face of Islam: of a period of tolerance and rationality when the spread of a new religion, and the desire of its scholars to understand and interpret the world around them, drove them to make wonderful advances in the fields of philosophy, astronomy, medicine, mathematics, physics and chemistry; indeed, in almost every branch of science that one cares to mention.
Even those in the West who do have a vague awareness of the contribution of the Muslim world to science tend to think of it as no more than a reheating of Greek and Indian science and philosophy, with the odd bit of originality subtly hidden away, like Eastern spice added for flavour. A grateful Europe then eagerly reclaimed its heritage as soon as it awoke in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Growing up in Iraq, I learnt at school about such great thinkers as Ibn Sina (Avicenna), al Kindi and Ibn al Haytham (Alhazen), not as remote figures in history but, I suppose, as direct intellectual ancestors. Many in the West will have heard, for instance, of the Persian scholar Ibn Sina as the greatest philosopher of Islam and its most famous physician.
But there are many other names that have been largely forgotten. If I think about it, I encountered just a few of these characters at school, not in science classes but in history lessons. For the teaching of science today, even in the Muslim world, follows the western narrative. While no one can doubt the genius of the Renaissance astronomer Copernicus who, in showing that the Earth was not at the centre of the universe, heralded the age of modern astronomy, it is not commonly known that he relied on work carried out by astronomers many centuries earlier.
Indeed, many of his diagrams and calculations were taken directly from manuscripts of a 14th century Syrian astronomer by the name of Ibn al Shatir and the 13th century Persian al Tusi.
Moreover, pupils around the world are reliably informed at school that Isaac Newton, the English scientist who died in 1727, is the undisputed father of modern optics. School science books abound with his famous experiments with lenses and prisms, his study of the nature of light and its reflection, and the refraction and decomposition of light into the colours of the rainbow.
But Newton stood on the shoulders of a giant who lived 700 years earlier. Without doubt one of the greatest of the Abbasid scholars was the Iraqi physicist Ibn al Haytham, born in 965AD, who is regarded as the father of the modern scientific method, long before it was put forward by Renaissance scholars such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes. He is credited with establishing that light travels in straight lines and that it takes time to travel over distances. In one experiment, using what in effect was the world’s first pinhole camera, he projected an inverted image of a partially eclipsed Sun onto a screen in a darkened room.
I use the term “Arabic” science in its broadest sense. I do not mean it to denote only the science practised by people of Arab blood. I therefore refrain from referring to it as “Arab” science. What I mean by Arabic science is that which was written down in the Arabic language.
Some have asked why I do not define this as Islamic, rather than Arabic, science, and there are a number of reasons. Firstly, many but not all the important advances were carried out by Muslims, though they could be said to have been made possible by the tolerance of the emerging religion. Baghdad’s ninth-century House of Wisdom was home to such geniuses as the Christian physician Hunayn ibn Ishaq and the pagan mathematician Thabit ibn Qurra. But Arabs, Persians, Christians and Jews alike all wrote their scholarly texts in Arabic.
More importantly, however, and in the spirit of Islam’s fundamental enlightenment, there can be no such thing as Islamic science or, worse still, “Muslim science”. For science cannot be characterised by the religion of those who engage in it, as the Nazis in 1930s Germany tried to do when disparaging Einstein’s great achievements as “Jewish science”. The term “Islamic science” may likewise be used by those wishing to downplay its importance for similar reasons. Just as there is no “Jewish science”, or “Christian science”, there cannot be “Islamic science”. There is just science.
It remains to be seen whether I have bitten off more than I can chew by tackling this subject. My three-part television series for the BBC is currently being shown in Britain and already my mailbox is overflowing, with praise and criticism in equal measure – the latter from both sides of the fence: either I am an Islamic apologist or an infidel.For me, however, this is nothing more or less than a fantastic, largely untold story. Let us hope that is how it is seen – and that those in the Arab and Muslim world can feel a stronger sense of pride in their heritage.
Jim al Khalili OBE is Professor of Physics and Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey in the UK. His series Science and Islam is being shown on BBC4 in Britain and his book The House of Wisdom will be published next year by Penguin.