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REVIEWS

OVERSIMPLIFYING THE ISLAMIC SCIENTIFIC TRADITION


Muzaffar Iqbal, Islam and Science. Ashgate Science and Religion Series.
Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2002.
Pp. xxii + 349. US$29.95 PB.
By Sonja Brentjes
Iqbals book proposes to examine the relationship between religion (Islam)
and scholars engaged in the disciplines devoted to the study of nature.
When treated from a historical perspective, the subject can provide an
avenue for understanding the activities of students of non-religious disci-
plines and their work in Islamic societies. This relationship has not been
studied sufciently. Most of the twentieth-century statements about it were
informed by a text written in 1915 by the eminent Hungarian scholar of
Islam Ignaz Goldziher (1981). By quoting remarks out of context from
Islamic texts and by presenting them as delivering one single message,
Goldziher convinced many that there had been a permanent hostility
among scholars of the religious disciplines in Islamic societies toward the
non-religious disciplines particularly philosophy, logic, and astrology,
but also astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and the disciplines that shared
common ground with religion such as magic and divination.
In a recent book, Dimitri Gutas severely criticises Goldzihers article,
chastising its profound lack of historical perspective (Gutas, 1998).
Gutas points out that the relationships among rulers, religious scholars,
and students of the ancient disciplines were much more complex than
Goldziher recognises. They varied over time and space, from court to
court, and from discipline to discipline. Similarly, David A. Kings
work on professional astronomers (muwaqqits) at mosques challenges
the conventional view (King, 1996). The muwaqqits were responsible for
determining the direction toward Mecca, the ve daily prayer times, and
related issues. King shows that the astronomers produced a substantial
body of highly sophisticated mathematical and astronomical literature, and
he calls it an example of science in the service of Islam.
The book under review tackles some of the problems exemplied in
Goldzihers article. Its author, a sometime chemist and an enthusiast in
Metascience 13: 8386, 2004.
2004 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
84 REVIEWS
the history of science in Islam, is rightly troubled by the many misrepre-
sentations of the Islamic world and its scientic achievements that remain
common even in academic writings. As a Muslim, he sets out to present
an authentic account written from within. Unfortunately, his attempt
to set the record right or to elevate the level of debate on science and
Islam will not get far. The book is neither a scholarly work of original
research nor a solid synthesis of current literature. In fact, many parts of
the book are based entirely on a few secondary sources. I am disturbed to
nd that numerous quotations from historical texts are actually lifted from
secondary sources.
The book consists of eleven chapters. In the rst four, the author surveys
the beginning of what he calls the Islamic scientic tradition, its rooting
in the Quran, the spread and ourishing of this tradition, and the relation-
ship between religion and science in Islamic societies. The fth chapter
is devoted to discussing the alleged decline of the sciences in the Islamic
world. Chapter Six talks about the transmission of Arabic scientic liter-
ature to Latin Europe and its subsequent transformation. Chapter Seven
deals with the changing relationship between Catholic and Protestant
Europe and Islamic societies in Europe, Asia, and Africa with respect to
science, technology, trade, and war. Chapters Eight to Ten consider the
impact of European colonialism on education, self-respect, science, and
social and cultural coherence in the Islamic societies. The last chapter
describes debates about the relationship between religion and science
among Muslim scholars, clerics, and laypersons during recent decades.
Iqbals book raises many important issues. In this review, I can discuss
only a few of them. Before moving on to specic issues, I may point
out two substantive aws of the book. First, it is plagued with overgen-
eralisations. For example, Iqbal states, the Islamic scientic tradition . . .
was a social activity with well-developed mechanisms for transmission of
results over the entire geographical spread of the Muslim world (p. 54). In
fact, many of the major mathematical, geographical, or astronomical texts
written after 1000CE never reached Islamic societies on the Iberian Penin-
sula, and almost none of such writings dated before 1200CE were studied
in Islamic Southeast Asia. Second, the authors view of history and religion
is essentialist. Although he acknowledges the differences between major
trends in early Islam, he believes that there is a core of Islamic beliefs
shared by all Muslims in all times and that before the arrival of European
colonialism, this religious core guaranteed that scientic enterprises in
Islamic societies were rooted in the Quran and Sunna.
Strangely, Iqbal never analyses what was Islamic in the Islamic
scientic tradition or investigates how the tradition was embedded in the
OVERSIMPLIFYING THE ISLAMIC SCIENTIFIC TRADITION 85
Quranic worldview. He asks some interesting questions, but does not try
to answer them through historical research. Instead, he accepts uncriti-
cally stories from medieval sources (pp. 1315, 50). He believes that the
relationship between science and Islam emerged naturally and that the
scientic tradition was thoroughly rooted in the worldview created by
Islam (p. 72). These assumptions lead him to declare that no one ever
thought it necessary to create an external apparatus to relate the two
and that there was no decorative use of the Quranic verses in Islamic
scientic works before the seventeenth century (p. 72). He simply ignores
the heated debates over the relationships between Muslim law, philos-
ophy and logic, the development of the literature of Sunni astronomy and
prophetic medicine, and the frequent appeals to the Quran found in many
treatises on arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, astrology, or geography after
1100CE. In addition to such questionable statements, Iqbal makes quite a
few wild claims. Referring to Syriac translations of Aristotelian works, for
example, he writes, When Muslims came into contact with this body of
literature, it had already developed a technical Aristotelianism, as well as
a strong peripateticism (p. 42). This statement indicates that the author
does not understand that peripateticism is merely another term for Aris-
totelianism. Moreover, the Syriac translators were not the rst scholars to
have developed a technical Aristotelianism. It had already been accom-
plished by Aristotles students and the later commentators living in Greece
and the Middle East and writing in Greek.
The last chapters examine colonialism, the introduction of Western
knowledge into Islamic societies, and the replacement of traditional insti-
tutions of education by colonial universities, scientic societies, etc. These
are important topics, but unfortunately, the chapters also suffer from poor
scholarship. Iqbal takes Mughal India and the British Raj as the model
for the entire Islamic world and assumes that there were no substantive
differences between differing Islamic societies or between differing forms
of colonialisation. He lumps the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth
centuries together without taking into account change over time. At one
point, he uses the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed IIIs ambassador to France,
Mehmed elebi Yirmisekiz (1720), as an example of the students sent to
Europe by Muhammmad Ali, the quasi-independent ruler of nineteenth-
century Egypt (p. 234). This kind of juggling of time, place, and subject
occurs repeatedly throughout Chapters 7 to 9.
Regrettably, Iqbals careless scholarship ultimately does a disservice
to the rich history of Islamic societies and their scholarly cultures. The
book reduces a complex picture to a tale of righteous Islamic scholars,
vicious Western oppressors, and traitorous Muslim, Hindu, and secular
86 REVIEWS
collaborators. While colonialism was a crime that brought the colonised
severe suffering, the success of the colonial enterprise between 1500 and
1948 cannot be explained by merely pointing, as the author does in Chapter
10, to colonial terror and traitorous collaborators; nor can the underdevel-
opment of science and technology in many countries of the Muslim world
today be reduced, as Iqbals Chapter 11 suggests, to the prevalence of
secular Western philosophy, rather than Muslim religious belief, in these
elds.
REFERENCES
Goldziher, I., The attitude of Orthodox Islam toward the ancient sciences. In M.L. Swartz
(ed), Studies on Islam, 185215 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).
Gutas, D., Greek Thought, Arabic Culture (London: Routledge, 1998).
King, D.A., On the role of the Muezzin and the Muwaqqit in Medieval Islamic Society. In
F. Jamil Ragep & S.P. Ragep (eds), with S. Livesey, Tradition, Transmission, Transform-
ation. Proceedings of Two Conferences on Pre-modern Science held at the University of
Oklahoma, 285346 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996).
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