Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Historiography of Islamic Science

The history of science in the Islamic world, like all history, is filled with questions of interpretation. Historians of science generally consider that the study of Islamic science, like all history, must be seen within the particular circumstances of time and place. A.I. Sabra opened a recent overview of Arabic science by noting, "I trust no one would wish to contest the proposition that all of history is local history ... and the history of science is no exception."[1]

Some scholars avoid such local historical approaches and seek to identify essential relations between Islam and science that apply at all times and places. The Pakistani physicist, Pervhez Hoodbhoy, portrayed "religious fanaticism to be the dominant relation of religion and science in Islam". Sociologist Toby Huff maintained that Islam lacked the "rationalist view of man and nature" that became dominant in Europe. The Persian philosopher and historian of science, Seyyed Hossein Nasr saw a more positive connection in "an Islamic science that was spiritual and antisecular" which "point[ed] the way to a new 'Islamic science' that would avoid the dehumanizing and despiritualizing mistakes of Western science."[2]

Nasr identified a distinctly Muslim approach to science, flowing from Islamic monotheism and the related theological prohibition against portraying graven images. In science, this is reflected in a philosophical disinterest in describing individual material objects, their properties and characteristics and instead a concern with the ideal, the Platonic form, which exists in matter as an expression of the will of the Creator. Thus one can "see why mathematics was to make such a strong appeal to the Muslim: its abstract nature furnished the bridge that Muslims were seeking between multiplicity and unity."[3]

Rather than identifying such essential relations between Islam and science, some historians of science question the value of drawing boundaries that label the sciences, and the scientists who practice them, in specific cultural, civilizational, or linguistic terms. Consider the case of Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201–1274), who invented his mathematical theorem, the Tusi Couple, while he was director of Maragheh observatory. Tusi's patron and founder of the observatory was the non-Muslim Mongol conqueror of Baghdad, Hulagu Khan. The Tusi-couple "was first encountered in an Arabic text, written by a man who spoke Persian at home, and used that theorem, like many other astronomers who followed him and were all working in the "Arabic/Islamic" world, in order to reform classical Greek astronomy, and then have his theorem in turn be translated into Byzantine Greek towards the beginning of the fourteenth century, only to be used later by Copernicus and others in Latin texts of Renaissance Europe."[4]

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